The Ocean Cleanup Project launches a de­vice to elim­i­nate the Great Pa­cific Garbage Patch, which isn’t a “patch” at all.

Power & Motor Yacht - - IN THIS ISSUE - —Krista Karl­son

The Ocean Cleanup Project launches a de­vice to elim­i­nate the Great Pa­cific Garbage Patch, which isn’t a patch at all.

More than 20 years ago, on his way back to Cal­i­for­nia af­ter the Transpa­cific Yacht Race—an off­shore event start­ing in San Pe­dro, Cal­i­for­nia, and end­ing just east of Honolulu, Hawaii, or about 2,225 nau­ti­cal miles—oceanog­ra­pher and sail­boat rac­ing cap­tain Charles Moore no­ticed some­thing fishy in the North Pa­cific. “I could stand on deck for five min­utes and see noth­ing but the de­tri­tus of civ­i­liza­tion in the re­motest part of the great Pa­cific Ocean,” he wrote on his web­site. Plas­tic. Lots of plas­tic. Moore was see­ing first­hand the Great Pa­cific Garbage Patch, the pop­u­lar name for a col­lec­tion of waste twice the size of Texas. It floats in a gyre where the cur­rents con­verge be­tween Cal­i­for­nia and Hawaii. Ac­cord­ing to the Ocean Cleanup Foun­da­tion, which has con­ducted the most ex­ten­sive anal­y­sis to date of this phe­nom­e­non, a to­tal of 1.8 tril­lion pieces of plas­tic are es­ti­mated to be float­ing in the patch. Most are mi­croplas­tics, or tiny pieces smaller than a pen­cil eraser. Nev­er­the­less, the study found that its to­tal mass is equiv­a­lent to 500 Boe­ing 747s.

Most of the garbage was gen­er­ated on land and im­prop­erly dis­posed of along the shore­line, ac­cord­ing to a 2011 re­port by the EPA. The rest was gen­er­ated at sea by fish­ing boats, cargo ships and recre­ational boats. But be­fore you pic­ture a float­ing land­fill, con­sider that the ma­jor­ity of plas­tic par­ti­cles float slightly be­low the sur­face, like a plas­tic soup.

And it’s a toxic soup. Eighty-four per­cent of the plas­tic is be­lieved to con­tain at least one per­sis­tent bioac­cu­mu­la­tive toxic chem­i­cal (PBT), a com­pound with a high re­sis­tance to degra­da­tion that stays in the blood­stream of the sea life that in­gests it.

Some an­i­mals don’t even make it that far, as they get trapped and drowned in dis­carded fish­ing nets— called “ghost nets”—that ac­count for 46 per­cent of the to­tal mass of the Garbage Patch.

This sum­mer, an in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary team of ex­perts and en­trepreneurs are launch­ing a sys­tem that is ex­pected to re­move half of the Great Pa­cific Garbage Patch over the course of five years. Boyan Slat (at right) founded The Ocean Cleanup Foun­da­tion in 2013 when he was 18 years old. Since then, the Nether­lands-based team has com­bined five years of re­search and pro­to­typ­ing to cre­ate a rev­o­lu­tion­ary Ocean Cleanup Ma­chine.

The sys­tem works like a float­ing win­dow shade. A se­ries of im­per­me­able screens hang ver­ti­cally from float­ing pipes that are ½ to 1 mile long; they’re weighted by sus­pended an­chors po­si­tioned al­most 2,000 feet down. Be­cause deeper wa­ter moves more slowly than sur­face wa­ter, this al­lows the sys­tem to move slightly slower than the garbage in or­der to col­lect it.

The mov­ing sys­tem ab­sorbs the force of storms and al­lows sea life to pass freely un­der­neath, all while cap­tur­ing more plas­tic than a fixed sys­tem and pro­duc­ing less by­catch than a trawl­ing sys­tem. (A fixed sys­tem is lim­ited by down­force, or the suck­ing of par­ti­cles un­der­neath the screen; cleanup via trawl­ing nets has been crit­i­cized for catch­ing too few mi­croplas­tics and too many sea crea­tures.) Once enough plas­tic is cap­tured, the sys­tem sends a sig­nal to the Mis­sion Con­trol Cen­ter in San Francisco. The team tracks the pre­cise lo­ca­tion of the de­vice and de­ploys a ship to col­lect the de­bris, which is brought to land and sold to man­u­fac­tur­ers who use it to cre­ate re­cy­cled goods, like sun­glasses. It prom­ises a biofriendly ap­proach to re­vers­ing a hu­man-caused prob­lem.

It’s too early to know whether The Ocean Cleanup Project will be suc­cess­ful, but the team is con­fi­dent, and the ben­e­fits of clean­ing up the Great Pa­cific Garbage Patch are plenty. Ma­rine life will be at a lower risk of con­fus­ing mi­croplas­tics for food. And when we eat th­ese crea­tures, we won’t have to worry about the meat po­ten­tially trans­fer­ring toxic chem­i­cals to our bod­ies.

Clean­ing up the Patch might make both hu­mans and wildlife health­ier, but ab­sent con­scious ef­forts to cut down on the source, the plas­tic soup will per­sist. To com­ple­ment re­spon­si­ble waste dis­posal reg­u­la­tions on land, boaters should have a sys­tem for col­lect­ing and re­cy­cling trash on board, and dis­pos­ing of it prop­erly in port.

The prob­lem, like the ocean, is big. But so is this pos­si­ble so­lu­tion.

At 24 years old, Boyan Slat is the youngest re­cip­i­ent of the UN’s high­est en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­co­lade, Cham­pion of the Earth. In Fe­bru­ary 2013, he dropped out of engi­neer­ing school to found The Ocean Cleanup Foun­da­tion. His goal is am­bi­tious, if not...

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