The proliferation of plastics and other garbage in the ocean is both sad and scary. Ocean currents called “gyres” bring this trash together to form massive rafts of floating litter. The so-called “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” between California and Hawaii is twice as big as Texas. Overall, these masses cover a staggering 40 percent of the ocean’s surface, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that a Netherlands-based nonprofit called The Ocean Cleanup has deployed a device that can collect some of that trash, CNN reports. Ocean Cleanup’s system consists of an arcing barrier that dangles a net-like skirt below the water’s surface. Don’t worry, it doesn’t ensnare sea life.
The entire system moves without the aid of human operators on the very same currents that amass the garbage. It can swoop up debris ranging in size from sprawling fishnets to microplastics as small as one millimeter. “Today, I am very proud to share with you that we are now catching plastics,” Boyan Slat, Ocean Cleanup founder and CEO said at a press conference in Rotterdam.
‘Unscheduled Learning Opportunites’
Slat’s excitement comes after a number of “unscheduled learning opportunities,” as he calls them. Ocean Cleanup launched its device in September 2018 from San Francisco. A few months later, the group announced that the system wasn’t performing as intended. 2019 got underway with another mishap when a 60-foot section broke free and the entire system had to return to shore along with 4,400 pounds of trash.
However, this unscheduled learning opportunity gave the development team a chance to do some tinkering. The new prototype now includes a cork line on the top of the skirt to stop smaller plastic from washing over it. In addition, a parachute to slow the system down and allow it to grab more trash was also tacked on.
The new prototype, dubbed System 001/B, set sail in June. “We now have a self-contained system in the great pacific garbage patch that is using the natural forces of the ocean to passively catch and concentrate plastics, thereby confirming the most important principle behind the ocean cleanup system,” Slat said.
With the success of System 001/B under its belt, Ocean Cleanup looks to build a fleet of identical devices. With the added systems, the group predicts that it can halve the Great Pacific Garbage Patch every five years.
Even so, there’s still work to do. Slat has said that the system will need to survive for years in adverse ocean conditions and improve its ability to hold plastic in order for the operation to be financially feasible.
Time is also a nagging factor. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, plastic will outweigh all of the fish in the sea by 2050. Devices like Ocean Cleanup’s help mitigate the problem. However, actions like the G20 deal to reduce plastic use need to continue to protect our most precious resource.