Great Pacific Garbage Patch Cleanup Underway

After a series of setbacks, a system for catching plastic floating in the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is now doing its job. The project, started in 2013, consists of a floating barrier with a screen attached beneath it to catch trash swirling in the ocean. Boyan Slat, 25, the Dutch inventor who created the system and founder of the Ocean Cleanup Project, said, “Our ocean cleanup system is now finally catching plastic, from one-ton ghost nets to tiny microplastics.”

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a 600,000-square mile collection of trash swirling in the ocean halfway between Hawaii and California. It is estimated that the patch contains around about 1.8 trillion pieces of trash collectively weighing around 88,000 tons. The trash in the patch comes from around the Pacific Rim, including nations in Asia and North and South America.

Slat designed a self-contained cleanup system that harnesses the natural currents of the sea to passively collect plastic debris. The design currently in use has a floating barrier that holds a 10-foot tapered screen below it to trap the waste. The system drifts slowly across the sea and a beacon regularly reports its current position. Every few months, vessels will be dispatched to collect the waste in the system and bring it ashore to be recycled.

The design of the system has undergone several major revisions before reaching its current form. The barrier did not catch any trash in its first weeks of operation because of a speed problem that was overcome by using an underwater parachute anchor to slow the boom. Another problem arose with waves pushing the plastic over the cork barrier, necessitating a change to a line of larger corks to corral the plastic. Late last year, the barrier broke under the stress of being constantly battered by wind and waves, requiring four months of repairs before being relaunched.

Slat says that the results from the current system are promising enough to begin designing a second system to collect even more trash from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. However, he did not give a timeline for when the second version would be ready for launch. Slat did say “if the journey to this point taught us anything, it is that it’s definitely not going to be easy.”