Between the coasts of California and Hawaii, a massive, swirling soup of garbage holds almost two trillion pieces of plastic. When litter enters the ocean, currents carry it away from the coasts, where gyres, or rotating ocean currents, pull them into swirling patches.
Dutch inventor Boyan Slat intends to change that. With his organization, The Ocean Cleanup, he plans to remove half the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch every five years. By 2040, he hopes to have removed 90% of the plastic. In 2018, the organization launched its first plastic retrieval system, System 001 or "Wilson," but after just a few months, it broke apart. In June of 2019, the next iteration set out from Vancouver to resume the cleanup.
What's a Garbage Patch?
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is just one of several "patches" of trash in the ocean. But, the term "patch" is a bit of a misnomer. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration likens these "patches" to bowls of peppery soup. The ocean water circulating in the gyre is the broth, and the plastics are the pepper.
Garbage patch plastics range from old fishing gear to water bottles to microplastics. These microplastics are less than five millimeters in size and come from larger, degraded plastics. Microplastics are the most numerous type of trash in the garbage patch.
Starting the Ocean Cleanup
The catalyst for Slat's ambition was a scuba diving trip to Greece. He reports seeing more plastic in the water than fish on this excursion, which drove him to start The Ocean Cleanup in 2013. Initially powered by crowdfunding, now the nonprofit is financially supported by "philanthropic, commercial and governmental donations/sponsorships," according to the site.
System 001B features a parachute anchor and cork line in addition to the original design. So far, it's had some success in trapping plastic. Image Credit: The Ocean Cleanup
The plastic retrieval system is a 2,000-foot (600-meter) long floating array with a skirt that reaches 3 meters below the surface. The free-floating system takes on a U shape, funneling plastic into its center. Wind, waves and currents move the device through the water as it passively collects plastic. Solar-powered sensors, lights, satellite antennas, cameras and anti-collision systems adorn the system and continuously send data to The Ocean Cleanup headquarters.
Putting it to the Test
System 001, which first set out in September 2018, wasn't a resounding success. Wilson was not retaining plastic, and then in December 2018, a section of the system detached. The Ocean Cleanup crew had to tow the broken device to Hawaii and start repairs.
The new and improved second iteration, System 001B, launched from Vancouver on June 26, 2019. Design improvements include a parachute anchor that slows the device so that waves and wind can push plastic into the system. A cork line now accompanies the floater to prevent waves from carrying plastic over the system.
The addition of a cork line has helped the system retain plastic as it drifts. Image credit: The Ocean Cleanup
In a press announcement on October 2, 2019, The Ocean Cleanup reported that System 001B has been a success, collecting and retaining plastics. In addition, while it wasn't designed to trap microplastics, the organization claims that System 001B has successfully captured some millimeter-sized pieces. The Ocean Cleanup intends to conclude this mission in December, and engineers are already using the mission's data to develop a more durable System 002. The ultimate goal is to produce a fleet of these plastic retrieval systems to send out across the world's oceans.
Just a Bandage
One of the most common critiques of the project is that it doesn't address the real issue. Critics argue that a real solution to the ocean plastic problem would prevent plastic from getting to the ocean in the first place, and cut down plastic use. Slat agrees. "We also need to make sure that no more plastic enters the oceans," he told Digital Trends. But, "we absolutely need to clean up the plastic that's already in the ocean."
Another problem with this project is that it only traps surface plastic. Plastics also exist in the deep ocean, well below the 3-meter reach of the floater. Multiplestudies have found that a significant amount of plastics can even be found in deep-sea sediments.
Plastic trash has even been found in ocean trenches. Image Credit: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research
We also don't know how the recycling piece of this operation will work. The Ocean Cleanup seems to have had some success proving their concept, but they have not yet undertaken the plastic removal and recycling piece of the mission. Their website is unclear about when or how this will happen. It's also unclear who will do the recycling. Already, only about nine percent of plastic waste is recycled. The Ocean Cleanup might exchange one problem for another, taking plastic out of the ocean but adding more plastic to landfills and incinerators.
Despite a rocky start, Slat maintains that The Ocean Cleanup is still on target to remove 50 percent of plastic from the Great Garbage Patch every five years.