We’ve all seen images of the veritable plastic islands floating in our oceans and on our shores. By 2050, Earth’s oceans could well have more plastic than fish. But an ambitious ocean cleanup project aims to change all that. The question everyone is asking is: will it work?
The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit founded by Boyan Slat in 2013, has a singular focus: to rid the world’s oceans of plastic and waste. For the past five years, the organization has been researching and developing prototypes for ocean cleanup, and in 2017, they landed on the design that would become System 001, a boom-like mechanism created to efficiently remove large amounts of plastic from our oceans. Their first mission is to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an oceanic gyre containing an estimated 80,000 metric tons of plastic.
The boom is made up of 2,000 feet of plastic piping, with a 9-foot skirt below. It utilizes natural oceanic forces for movement, combining energy from the waves, wind, and the current. By converting into a U-shape, System 001 corrals plastic near the surface of the water. The rig moves faster than the plastic, which is only affected by the current, allowing for effective capture. The plastic is picked up by a vessel and taken to be processed and recycled.
The system, nicknamed Wilson, is made to avoid harming sea life in the process. Because the skirt below is solid, the current will naturally push fish underneath and past the machine. It moves slow enough for creatures to swim away, so they don’t get trapped against the screen. The solid screen means sea life won’t get tangled like they might with a net. Wilson avoids other ships too: It is equipped with lanterns, radar reflectors, navigational signals, GPS and anti-collision beacons to ensure that the system won’t have any issue dealing with other ships at sea.
Engineered to withstand various ocean forces, the key to Wilson’s resilience is flexibility. The boom is constructed to be limber and follow the waves, wind, and current. The free-floating nature of the mechanism gives it a surprising amount of survivability when facing difficult conditions.
After many trials and tests, The Ocean Cleanup received the go-ahead to send their rig to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in early October. The system arrived and was installed at the patch on October 16, and cleanup is currently in process.
If the initial voyage is a success, the organization plans to launch a whole fleet of cleanup booms. The Ocean Cleanup projects that it will be able to clean 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in five years, and that by 2040, they will have cleaned 90% of the plastic and waste in the ocean.
The non-profit has faced a number of criticisms regarding the viability and effectiveness of the project, but Slat and The Ocean Cleanup have faced these comments head-on, offering levelheaded explanations or solutions in response to naysayers. Despite doubts, a large-scale cleanup project like this is unprecedented, and the organization’s first venture looks set to succeed. Time will tell just how much of an impact The Ocean Cleanup and System 001 will have on our oceans.