The longest floating structure in history is about to hit the ocean to fix a big problem.

In 2016, "the longest floating structure in world history" will be placed in the ocean.

Don't worry — it's not another super yacht or party barge or some other contraption that will further pollute the ocean.

Nope, this is a good thing.


It's called The Ocean Cleanup, and it's a 1.2-mile-long system designed to collect and remove plastic from the ocean.

For two years, it will hang out in the ocean, hopefully to begin undoing what we've done for decades: polluted the heck out of the water with plastic trash.

Image by The Ocean Cleanup.

It's basically a stationary array of barriers that uses the ocean's natural currents to collect the plastic at a central location.

When I first wrote about The Ocean Cleanup a year ago, I thought it was something that moved through the ocean, collecting trash as it went. But that's not how it works at all.

Image by The Ocean Cleanup.

The Ocean Cleanup stays right where it's launched.

Here's how it works:

"Why move through the oceans, if the oceans can move through you? Instead of going after the plastic using boats and nets, The Ocean Cleanup will use long floating barriers, using the natural movement of the ocean currents to passively concentrate the plastic itself. "

"Virtually all of the current flows underneath these booms, taking away all (neutrally buoyant) sea life, preventing by-catch, while the lighter-than-water plastic collects in front of the floating barrier."

"The scalable array of floating barriers, attached to the seabed, is designed for large-magnitude deployment, covering millions of square kilometers without moving a centimeter."

Images and captions by The Ocean Cleanup.

The plan is to deploy The Ocean Cleanup near Tsushima, an island between Japan and South Korea, and let it do its thing for two years. Then the next step is to use all the plastic junk it collects as an alternate energy source.

Talk about killing two birds with one stone. (Although, this is quite the opposite of killing birds, so ... bad metaphor).

Unfortunately, the ocean is suuuper polluted.

A lot of that pollution is plastic trash — 8 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every single year.

Right now, about 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic are floating around the ocean.


Image by The Ocean Cleanup.

And pollution, as we know, causes many environmental, economic, and health problems. For example, plastic kills over 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals every year. (That's awful.)

The animals it doesn't kill are often left deformed, as was the case with Peanut the turtle, whose shell was warped after she got stuck in a six-pack plastic ring. The same thing happened to this poor guy too.

Plastic pollution is expensive! Plastic in the oceans costs companies across the world over $13 billion a year and the U.S. government hundreds of millions in coastal cleanup efforts. Wouldn't it be great if we could spend that $13 billion elsewhere?

Removing plastic trash from the ocean has been a huge struggle. But that's about to change.

So far, attempts to clear plastic waste from the ocean have involved ships and nets and just haven't worked. According to The Ocean Cleanup, solutions that move through the ocean to remove trash tend to be ineffective and also cause more damage:

"Using vessels and nets to collect the plastic from one garbage patch would take about 79,000 years and tens of billions of dollars. Besides, such an operation would cause significant harm to sea life and generate huge amounts of CO2 and other emissions."

That's what makes The Ocean Cleanup so cool. All studies show it's going to work, it's cost effective, and it doesn't kill sea life.

In fact, they are estimating that The Ocean Cleanup could remove half the plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in just 10 years, costing 33 times less money and happening 7,900 times faster than the old vessel and net method.

This first deployment near Tsushima will give them an opportunity to test out exactly how much trash can be removed, and how quickly, in reality.

Oh, and the guy who created this? He was a teenager when he got started on it.

Image by The Ocean Cleanup.

Boyan Slat is the genius behind The Ocean Cleanup. He's into his 20s now, so he's getting pretttty old. (Next time someone complains about "kids these days," share this story with them.)

He was on a diving trip in Greece in 2011 — you know, when he was around 16 — and was astounded by the amount of plastic he came across, wondering why nobody had cleaned it up.

Instead of waiting for someone to fix it, Slat came up with an idea himself, which he presented in 2012. In 2013, he began leading an international team of 100 engineers and scientists, and in 2014, they raised $2.2 million in crowdfunding.

And here we are today!

This year, we're going to learn exactly how quickly our oceans can be cleaned up.

A year ago, it was still in development. Now, it's happening. Imagine if it all goes according to plan! We could have cleaner oceans, healthier wildlife, and save money.

It's so great to see The Ocean Cleanup in action because pretty soon this ugliness that fills our oceans...

Image by The Ocean Cleanup.

...will be replaced by this thing of beauty!

Image by The Ocean Cleanup.

Of course, plastics aren't the only oil-based threat to the ocean. There's also, you know, literal oil.

Most plastics are made from petroleum taken from the core of the Earth. And while petroleum certainly makes a mess in its processed form, it's easier to separate solid plastics from water than raw, liquid petroleum.

This is especially true when that dangerous liquid is spewing from the Earth at uncontrollable rates, as tends to happen when we start drilling underwater.

If you want to help protect the oceans from more damage by fossil fuels, you can start by signing this petition to support America's Clean Power Plan — because there's no giant Ocean Cleanup rig that can clean the oil that will spill into our oceans.

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Watch the full story:

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Anne Owens and Luke Redito / Wikimedia Commons
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