A deceptively simple way to clean up the world's oceans

A barrier collects rubbish. Image: The Ocean Cleanup.

A year or so ago, a campaigner from the World Wildlife Federation told me that the Next Big Thing in environmental campaigning would be a push to rescue the planet's oceans. 

"Seas aren't under anybody's jurisdiction," she said. "Oceans need international effforts to protect the species that live there. And, that, for the most part, isn't happening." Combine this with oceans' enormous size, and you end up with 70 per cent of the planet covered in what is basically an unregulated dumping ground with no designated caretakers.

It's not surprising, then, that The Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit with a new system designed to clear rubbish out of oceans, is able to claim its invention as the "world's first" ocean cleaning system. The idea was bashed out by 100 volunteer scientists, and the subsequent stages of design and development have been totally crowdfunded. 

So how do you clear out swathes of the ocean on little money and no governmental support? Not easily. Take the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" (also, excitingly, known as the "Pacific garbage vortex"): the Ocean Cleanup team calculated that, using nets and boats, it would take up to 80,000 years and billions of dollars to completely clear the rubbish out. The process would also generate lots of CO, which rather cancels out the benefits. 

These figures are almost mind-bogglingly depressing. But then, as they describe on their website, the Ocean Cleanup team had an idea which might just let them circumvent them: "Why move through the oceans, if the oceans can move through you?" The ocean is constantly moving the rubbish around of its own accord: could some kind of static sieving mechanism capture the rubbish as it passes without expending any energy?

The project's current design uses a long, floating barrier tethered to a cable on the ocean floor. Because most plastic rubbish is lighter than water, the barrier is able to trap it without catching any sealife. When the team tried out a 40m length of the barrier as proof of concept, they saw that rubbish was indeed trapped, while even tiny sealife like plankton were not: 

A 2,000m long prototype is due to be tested in coastal waters in 2016, but in the mean time the team have crunched some numbers to demonstrate how quickly their invention could clear up the oceans.They estimate that a 100km length of cleanup system, deployed for 10 years, would clear up over 70m kg of rubbish – the equivalent of 42 per cent of the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch".This would cost an estimated €4.53 per kilogram of rubbish collected. 

Based on viability testing, the scientists reckon that the barrier would catch about 80 per cent of the detritus it comes into contact with, whiile its chevron-like shape would force it to condense at the barrier's point, like so:

From there, the rubbish could be collected and recycled. 

The project's still about five years from large-scale deployment, but if the science holds, it looks like it could pose a real solution. Now we just need to find that  €320m.

Images: The Ocean Cleanup. 

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.


Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.