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Taking aim at plastic pollution

Nov 1, 2018
Above and below, The Ocean Cleanup’s System 001 being towed in San Francisco Harbor for an early test.

Above and below, The Ocean Cleanup’s System 001 being towed in San Francisco Harbor for an early test.

Courtesy The Ocean Cleanup

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a swirling gyre of plastic debris nearly twice as large as Texas. The Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch nonprofit started by 24-year-old Boyan Slat, aims to remove most of the plastic debris within about 20 years.

The organization launched the first-ever large-scale ocean cleanup tool, System 001, in early September from San Francisco. The plan calls for a two-week trial 240 nm offshore before continuing to the garbage patch another 1,000 nm from shore.

“I am incredibly grateful for the tremendous amount of support we have received over the past few years from people around the world, that has allowed us to develop, test and launch a system with the potential to begin to mitigate this ecological disaster,” Slat said in a statement following the Sept. 8 departure from San Francisco. “This makes me confident that, if we manage to make the technology work, the cleanup will happen.

“Today’s launch is an important milestone,” he continued, “but the real celebration will come once the first plastic returns to shore. For 60 years, mankind has been putting plastic into the oceans; from that day onwards, we’re taking it back out again.”

Dozens of scientists and researchers optimized System 001 from Slat’s original concept. The 2,000-foot U-shaped unit is effectively a floating barrier that includes a skirt extending 10 feet underwater to corral plastic debris and microplastic.

Courtesy The Ocean Cleanup

“The system is designed to be propelled by wind and waves, allowing it to passively catch and concentrate plastic debris in front of it,” according to a news release from The Ocean Cleanup. “Due to its shape, the debris will be funnelled to the center of the system.” A cleanup vessel will make periodic visits to take the plastic on board and return it to shore.

“Moving slightly faster than the plastic, the system will act like a giant Pac-Man, skimming the surface of the ocean,” the release continued.

This initial voyage to the garbage patch, located halfway between Hawaii and California, is intended to prove the technology works. Advanced cameras and technology installed on the system will collect data and help researchers improve the design ahead of future deployments.

The shipping giant Maersk AP is a key sponsor of the project, and its vessel Maersk Launcher is towing System 001 into position. It will remain in place for about six months before coming back to land. Organizers plan to recycle plastic collected during the project.

Ocean pollution, particularly plastic and microplastic particles, is a growing concern for biologists, environmental groups and coastal nations. Data collected during the recent Volvo Ocean Race found evidence of microplastic pollution in waters thousands of miles from land. Sailors in the around-the-world contest also recalled virtual carpets of floating debris in some busy shipping lanes that appeared thick enough to walk across. Some scientists estimate there are nearly 2 trillion pieces of plastic in the garbage patch.

Ocean Cleanup hopes to launch up to 60 of its systems at once within two years, and it ultimately wants to remove 90 percent of ocean plastic by 2040. For more information on the project and sources of plastic pollution, or to contribute, visit www.theoceancleanup.com.

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