Just Another Hunk of Junk in the Ocean? The Great Garbage Collector Doesn’t Work

December 13, 2018 at 3:17 pm

The only major project promising to clean up ocean plastic isn’t working like it’s supposed to

Three months ago, the “Ocean Cleanupsystem was towed out to begin its lofty duty — gathering 5 trillion pieces of plastic pollution from the world’s oceans.

Starting as the sensational idea of the 16-year-old Dutch entrepreneur Boyan Slat, the Ocean Cleanup system became a plan, a TED talk, and eventually a crowd-funded reality.

Credit: Martin E. Klimek/USA TODAY

The non-profit raised $35 million to build high-tech floating nets, 2000 feet wide and 10 feet deep, intended to skim the ocean’s surface for plastic while allowing fish to swim underneath.

The device was supposed to cut the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — a swirling vortex of 90,000 tons of floating plastic — in half in 5 years, and by 90 percent by 2040.

Only one problem. It doesn’t work.

The trap moves too slowly to keep plastics inside, allowing them to float back out again. Sometimes the plastic even moves faster than the trap, effectively outrunning it, reports USA Today.

System 001, meant to be one of 60 of its kind, is supposed to operate as a passive boom, its plastic form a broad u-shape.

Below the form, a 9-foot skirt is supposed to corral the plastic trash from the upper layer of the seas. Researchers were expecting that the ocean’s currents and waves would ‘push’ trash into the system’s center, with the net propelling fish and other wildlife away.

The Ocean Cleanup team, believing their invention was “extraordinary” is now unsure why things aren’t working the way they planned.

“During the process of the design and the engineering there were a lot of points were we said ‘Is this assumption we’re making correct? Can we test it? How can we verify it?’ We probably ended up with about 50 assumptions that we decided we couldn’t verify anywhere but in the field,” said Lonneke Holierhoek, COO of the project.

For now, the Ocean Cleanup team is maintaining a guard ship at the site, and attempting to solve the issue, trying various fixes using computer models.

The team stated that the system will not return to land for modifications.

“It wasn’t a crazy idea,” Holierhoek said. “It was an ambitious idea. It was a simple and elegant idea. Generally, the best ideas are. And it attracted people who wanted to provide knowledge, support and funds”.

Brainchild Boyan Slat remains optimistic: “This is fixable,” he said.

In the meantime, here are a bunch of non-plastic and biodegradable plastic alternatives that won’t hurt the ocean: