A crew of engineers in the middle of the ocean will try to fix a device that was intended to clean the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic have coalesced into a field of debris twice the size of Texas.
The garbage-catcher has been floating in the Pacific since its highly-anticipated launch out of San Francisco in September, but it has yet to produce the results anticipated.
Its inventor, 24-year-old Boyan Slat, told the Associated Press the solar-powered barrier hasn’t collected any loads of trash because it’s moving more slowly than the plastic it’s trying to capture.
“Which of course you don’t want, because then you have a chance of losing the plastic again,” the Dutch innovator said in a video. “[We’re] trying to speed up the system just enough so that it will always constantly go faster than the plastic, which is what we need.”
Slat and his team said they had anticipated running into issues like this one.
“What we’re trying to do has never been done before,” Slat said. “So, of course we were expecting to still need to fix a few things before it becomes fully operational.”
Humans deposit more than eight million tons of trash into the ocean each year, the Ocean Conservancy’s Nicholas Mallos told NPR’s Michel Martin. That’s the equivalent of one dump truck full of plastic every minute.
Ocean currents ferry some of that waste into five garbage-filled gyres, as NPR’s Here & Now reported. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which has formed between California and Hawaii, is the largest of those trash islands.
Slat’s system, a 10-foot skirt attached beneath an unmoored, 2000-foot-long plastic tube, takes advantage of the wind and waves to move through the Pacific Ocean. The system aims to collect plastic from the water’s surface, which would then be picked up every few months by a support vessel and transported back to land for recycling. The garbage-trap uses solar-powered lights, cameras, sensors and satellite antennas to communicate its position to Slat’s team and passerby vessels.
Slat has been working on the invention since he was 17, he told NPR in 2016. In the project’s early stages, he crowd-sourced support from 50,000 backers from across the world. Then Silicon Valley investors Peter Thiel and Mark Benioff bought into the idea behind his nonprofit, The Ocean Cleanup.
More than 80 engineers, researchers, scientists and computational modelers now work on the project.
Arjen Tjallema, technology manager for the project, says the team uses drones to observe how the system changes over time.
“Plastics are entering the system, but what we also see is on some occasions plastics also leave the system again,” he said in a video. “We are now with the whole engineering team trying to find out why that happens.”
Tjallema says they plan to change the configuration of the device to allow the wind to propel the tube more quickly across the water.
Slat says he’s confident the main principles behind the idea hold up. If the team can tweak the system to overcome this setback, he plans to eventually launch dozens of copies into the Pacific Ocean. His group projects that by skimming the surface of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the devices can clear 50 percent of plastic from the ocean in just five years.
“We’ve given ourselves a year after launch to get this thing working,” he told the AP.
Critics of the project have expressed concern about the effectiveness of the device. George Leonard, chief scientist at the Ocean Conservancy, told NPR in September that only 3 percent to 5 percent of all the plastic flowing into the ocean actually winds up in these immense gyres.
“So if you want to clean up the ocean,” Leonard says, “it may in fact be that the open ocean is not the place to look.”
Leonard says the project could also divert resources from efforts that keep garbage from reaching the ocean in the first place.
Other skeptics pointed out that the floating pipe could have unintended consequences for the ecosystem, by attracting fish or shedding nano-sized particles of plastic into the water, as Wired reported.
Slat has acknowledged criticisms of the project. But he told the AP there’s “no real rational argument” not to push forward with the project. He says if the device manages to collect its first load of trash, that would be a symbolic moment.
“For 60 years man has been putting plastic into the ocean,” he said. “And from that day onwards we’re also taking it back out again.”