Pacific garbage cleanup begins
Floating barrier aims to collect five tonnes of plastics each month
A team of scientists and engineers last Saturday began an ambitious cleanup of plastics in the Pacific Ocean targeting a stretch of water known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
A 600-metre-long floating barrier was launched off the coast of San Francisco and, powered by currents, waves and wind, will aim to collect five tonnes of plastic debris each month.
The marine apparatus known as System 001 is the brainchild of the Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, who founded The Ocean Cleanup at age 18 in 2013. Along with 70 staff he has spent the last five years testing 273 models and six different prototypes as part of the $20m Netherlands-based project before arriving at the latest design – nicknamed “Wilson” in reference to the famous volleyball from the film Castaway.
The structure comprises 60 adjoining units forming a giant C-shaped tube attached to a three-metre deep impenetrable skirt which will collect plastic waste of 1cm diameter and larger, as well as discarded fishing nets, as it skims the ocean’s surface. The cleanup system is being towed out into the Pacific Ocean where it will undergo two weeks of operational testing at around 460km offshore before starting its mission. The system is equipped with locationbroadcasting technology in order to stop vessels from running into it.
The team expects to remove the accumulated debris every six weeks using a support vessel before transferring the plastic waste to the Netherlands to be recycled.
Oceanographer Laurent Lebreton explained: “Moving with wind and currents in the same way plastic does, the barrier should self-adjust once deployed. It will trap large debris before it can break down into harmful microplastics. Some 92% of plastic in the region is made up of pieces larger than 5mm so that is our focus.”
A recent study found that 1.8tn pieces of plastic weighing 80,000 metric tonnes are currently afloat in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a stretch of ocean running between California and Hawaii covering 1.6m sq km.
It is the largest and dirtiest of five ocean circulatory systems known as gyres, but researchers claim the project could remove 50% of plastics in the area within five years.
However, predictions that the Ocean Cleanup could remove 90% of surface plastics globally by 2040 using a full fleet of systems have been met with scepticism from environmentalists. Critics of the project also fear the system could pose a threat to marine life.
Rick Stafford, professor of marine biology and conservation at Bournemouth University, said: “It could remove a lot of large plastics from the ocean, which is positive as long as it will not harm sea life.”
The barrier was designed not to entangle fish and sea mammals that can swim under the skirt, but Stafford said there would undoubtedly be a degree of bycatch.
“Fish such as tuna could get caught up in the debris. Or if turtles get pushed up into the skirt there is a chance they will end up eating the plastic. My biggest concern is that providing a potential technological solution could make us feel like we have dealt with the plastics problem – whereas in reality we need strong policy and legislation to ban disposable plastics.”
Sue Kinsey, pollution policy officer at the Marine Conservation Society, agreed.
“While we understand the desire and passion behind this project, we feel more time and energy must be invested to stop litter entering our oceans in the first place. Additionally we have serious concerns that wildlife will be affected, especially the smaller floating plankton that many creatures depend on for food and those organisms that float passively.
She added: “Litter is distributed throughout the water column and this device ce will only pick up the first few ew metres of material and miss much of the microscopic waste aste that is impossible to collect ollect and recycle.”
A spokesperson kesperson for Greenpeace eace said: “Exploring ing new ideas and d technologies to clean up ocean pollution ollution is laudable. But prevention is far r better than cure and in order to tackle the e pollution crisis corporations porations must stop op producing so o much plastic.”