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Meet the genius who’s cleaning up our oceans

With conventional methods it would take 79,000 years to clean the ocean

Boyan Slat noticed there were more plastic bags than fish in the water around him. So, at the age of 16, he instigated the Ocean Cleanup, an enormous - but absolutely vital - effort to rid our ocean of plastic.

Slat's foundation has developed a prototype floating barrier system that uses the ocean’s natural currents to round up and concentrate plastic waste, vastly reducing the theoretical cleanup time.

“One of the world’s best inventions in 2015.”

TIME Magazine

About The Ocean Cleanup

The foundation – with the support of DSM and other partners, including the Dutch government – recently launched a prototype of the system in the North Sea, 23 km off the coast of Scheveningen, The Netherlands.

Here's how it works: A V-shaped barrier is placed perpendicular to the currents to collect as much plastic as possible. With it’s remarkable length of a 100km it’s the largest floating object at sea. It’s five times further away from the coastline than the closest oil rig, and it needs to be anchored at a depth that’s never been reached before.

To conquer these challenges, The Ocean Cleanup uses advanced technology and innovative materials such as Dyneema®, the world’s strongest fiber. It’s 15x stronger than steel and was developed by DSM.

Watch the video below to see how it works.

The Ocean Cleanup exploits ‘the greenest strength’ of Dyneema® fiber

An enormous but vital effort to rid our ocean of plastic

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A shared passion for sustainability

DSM shares a passion for sustainability with The Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit foundation launched in 2013 with the aim of developing sustainable and scalable technologies to help solve societal problems, including the issue of waste plastics in the world’s seas.

When environmental issues such as these need addressing, one can either turn a blind eye or attack the problem with energy and vision. That is what DSM tries to do every day, in the same manner as teenage Dutch entrepreneur Boyan Slat, now 22, did when he saw tons of plastics waste floating in the sea, and decided to found The Ocean Cleanup in 2013.

“I’m not entirely sure I’m not crazy. But, maybe I am.”

Boyan Slat

Slat quit his aerospace engineering studies early that year and dedicated himself to applying advanced technology to help address the problem. His foundation has developed a prototype floating barrier system – described by TIME magazine as “one of the world’s best inventions in 2015” – that uses the ocean’s natural currents to round up and concentrate plastic waste, vastly reducing the theoretical cleanup time. The foundation – with the support of DSM and other partners, including the Dutch government – recently launched the first such a prototype of the system in the North Sea, 23 km off the coast of Scheveningen, The Netherlands.

Consistent with its corporate focus on sustainability and environmental innovation, DSM was pleased to lend its materials expertise to The Ocean Cleanup. As manufacturer of the ultrahigh-molecular- weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) fiber branded as Dyneema®, it is supplying material to maritime ropes supplier Lankhorst Ropes, and together they are providing the key technology for the barrier’s mooring system.

In addition to its broader corporate mission to promote sustainability, DSM's development of the Dyneema® fiber itself provides a tangible example of how materials technology can “walk the walk” and help contribute to a more environmentally friendly, circular economy.

About ‘The Greenest Strength™’

“Dyneema® is made from a very low carbon feedstock material,” notes Edwin Grootendorst, Global Business Director at DSM Dyneema, “and is used to manufacture products that are ultra- lightweight and extremely durable – all of which combines to deliver the lowest carbon footprint per unit of strength in a fiber product available today. We call it “the greenest strength™’.”

Three factors combine to make Dyneema® “the greenest strength”: DSM’s continuous efforts to fine-tune the clean manufacturing processes used to make its products, its ongoing research and development to further enhance the fiber’s unique properties, and finally, industry partnerships such as these to advance contributions to a circular economy. “Dyneema®,” adds Grootendorst, “means there is no need to compromise between high performance and sustainability. Now or in the future.”

Or, as DSM Dyneema Sustainability Director André van Wageningen, says, “DSM has identified sustainability as one of our company’s key drivers. We want to contribute to a better world, but we can’t do it all by ourselves, so we collaborate with our partners.”

“There is no need to compromise between high performance and sustainability. Now or in the future.”

André van Wageningen, DSM Dyneema Sustainability Director

Launching the North Sea Prototype

It’s this collaborative mindset that led to partnering with The Ocean Cleanup. Slat – the youngest-ever recipient of the United Nations’ highest environmental accolade, Champion of the Earth – together with Sharon Dijkstra, the Dutch Minister of Environment, and Peter Berdowski, CEO of dredging and marine contractor Royal Boskalis Westminster N.V., officially unveiled the North Sea prototype in The Hague on June 22.

The Ocean Cleanup system makes use of floating barriers that act as an artificial coastline. Once the waste plastic, entirely powered by the ocean’s currents, is pushed toward the center of the V-shaped array, it allows for much easier, more efficient collection of the debris, which then can be transported to land and recycled.

The 100-meter-long prototype consists of multiple nitrogen-filled tubes made from polyurethane-based, multilayer laminate. The tubes measure 1.2m in diameter with an impermeable screen attached that reaches down 1.3m under water.

Securing the barrier

Lankhorst made Lanko®Force ropes out of Dyneema® and these helped to secure the various elements of the barrier system in place. Lankhorst used Dyneema® SK78 grade fiber for the ropes used in the prototype system, but DSM said it plans in the future to supply its Dyneema® Max Technology for use in the final system.

Sensors – for wind, current, pressure, tension, etc. – track every motion of the prototype barrier and the loads to which it is subjected. Camera systems, both above and below the water line, provide additional data. The information gathered will help to gauge the survivability of the current design in harsh conditions, and enable engineers to make the eventual commercial-scale system even more durable and effective.

Experts estimate that about 8 million tons of plastic enter the ocean every year, with the waste accumulating primarily in five ocean garbage patches.

Tackling a massive problem

Experts estimate that about 8 million tons of plastic enter the ocean every year, with the waste accumulating primarily in five ocean garbage patches. The largest – the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – is between Hawaii and California. The Ocean Cleanup believes its passive system theoretically could remove about half of the refuge from that particular patch within 10 years.

The current North Sea effort, designed as a one-year pilot project, represents the first time this barrier design is being put to the test in open waters. “The prototype,” says Slat, the group’s CEO, “will show us how The Ocean Cleanup’s floating barrier fares in extreme weather at sea – the kind of conditions the system will eventually face when deployed in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”

How Dyneema® fiber aids sustainability

Well beyond this project, DSM has demonstrated the positive environmental impact that Dyneema®, the world’s strongest, highest-performing fiber, can have on a variety of end-use applications. These are just some examples:

  • Seismic survey vessels using ropes made with Dyneema® have shown 15% fuel savings while reducing the amount of material used by half.
  • Denim wear made with the fiber offers a 30% carbon-footprint reduction across its life cycle.
  • Heavy-duty chains made with Dyneema® use 85% less material compared to steel.
  • Airplanes equipped with lightweight air cargo nets made with Dyneema® have been shown to consume 10% less fuel and yield a 40% lower carbon footprint.
  • The company also continues to work with its partners on a circular-economy initiative for mooring ropes. It is with passion and purpose, and through collaborating with partners such as The Ocean Cleanup and its visionary, entrepreneurial founder Boyan Slat, that DSM intends to stay at the forefront of innovative initiatives to reduce carbon footprints and boost sustainability around the globe.

“Human history is sort of a long list of things that were impossible and then were done. I’ve been an inventor for nearly all my life. Just the feeling you get when you think about something and then see that become reality. There’s really no better feeling than that, than the act of creation.”

Boyan Slat

How the system works

Here are some more specifics about how the floating barrier system works, and how Dyneema® helps to enable it: The barrier is anchored between two buoys. These buoys are anchored to the seafloor with steel chains. Each side of the barrier is attached to a buoy by means of a pair of 60mm-diameter, PET-based ropes. These decouple the motions of the buoy and give additional elasticity to the system. These ropes are equipped with a clump weight (for line tensioning in calm seas).

Lankhorst’s Lanko®force-brand ropes – made out of Dyneema® and measuring 44mm in diameter — are mounted between the barrier ends and the buoys, and act as a safety line should any of the PET ropes break. Underneath the barrier, a 100-meter-long, 12-strand Dyneema® rope (also 44mm) serves as the main tension member. This rope attaches to the barrier by means of 30 smaller, 12-strand Dyneema® ropes that are each 14mm in diameter. Because of Dyneema®’s unique properties, the 12-strand, braided fiber ropes are as strong as steel wire rope but weigh only one-seventh as much.

Testing to learn

After close to two months in the water, having been exposed to the elements and winds of up to 45 knots (9 Bft – Strong Gale), it was noticed that the barrier suffered initial damages, and it was decided to disconnect and take the barrier back to shore for detailed inspection and maintenance. Based on The Ocean Cleanup’s findings, some tweaks were made to the barrier design. After detailed engineering and production, a new prototype is expected to be deployed early 2017. “We test to learn”, Slat commented. “When ideas are confronted with reality, there will always be surprises. By coming across this issue now, we tackled one more thing before deployment of our pacific pilot [scheduled to start late next year].”