News

August 7, 2018

A giant floating trash collector will try to scoop up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

News Source: USA Today

Author(s): Elizabeth Weise

SAN FRANCISCO – On Sept. 8, an ungainly, 2,000-foot-long contraption will steam under the Golden Gate Bridge in what’s either a brilliant quest or a fool's errand.

Dubbed the Ocean Cleanup Project, this giant sea sieve consists of pipes that float at the surface of the water with netting below, corralling trash in the center of a U-shaped design.

The purpose of this bizarre gizmo is as laudable as it is head-scratching: to collect millions of tons of garbage from what's known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which can harm and even kill whales, dolphins, seals, fish and turtles that consume it or become entangled in it, according to researchers at Britain's University of Plymouth.

The project is the expensive, untried brainchild of a 23-year-old Dutch college dropout named Boyan Slat, who was so disgusted by the plastic waste he encountered diving off Greece as a teen that he has devoted his life to cleaning up the mess.

 Along with detractors who want to prioritize halting the flow of plastics into the ocean, the Dutch nonprofit gathered support from several foundations and philanthropists, including billionaire Salesforce founder Marc Benioff. In 2017, the Ocean Cleanup Project received $5.9 million in donations and reported reserves from donations in previous years of $17 million.

How it works

The Ocean Cleanup Project's passive system involves a floating series of connected pipes the length of five football fields that float at the surface of the ocean. Each closed pipe is 4 feet in diameter. Below these hang a 9-foot net skirt.

The system moves more slowly than the water, allowing the currents and waves to push trash into its center to collect it. Floating particles are captured by the net while the push of water against the net propels fish and other marine life under and beyond.

The system is fitted with solar-powered lights and anti-collision systems to keep any stray ships from running into it, along with cameras, sensors and satellites that allow it to communicate with its creators.

For the most part the system will operate on its own, though a few engineers will remain on a nearby ship to observe. Periodically a garbage ship will be sent out to scoop up the collected trash and transport it to shore, where it will be recycled.

Misguided focus

Marine biologists who study the problem say at this point things are so bad that it’s worth a shot.

“I applaud the efforts to remove plastics – clearly any piece of debris cleared from the ocean is helpful,” said Rolf Halden, a professor of environmental health engineering at Arizona State University.

But he added a caveat, namely that there’s not much point to cleaning up the mess unless we also stop the tons of plastic entering the oceans each day. “If you allow the doors to be open during a sand storm while you’re vacuuming, you won’t get very far,” Halden said.

And that gets at the heart of some of the criticism.

Stopping plastics from making their way into the oceans "should be the focus of 95 percent of our current effort, with the remaining 5 percent on clean up," said Richard Thompson, who heads the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom.

"If we consider cleanup to be a center stage solution, then we accept it is OK to contaminate the oceans and that our children and our children’s children will continue to clean up the mess," he said.

Another concern is that the project only targets plastic pollution floating at the top of the ocean, although researchers have found microplastics from the waves all the way down to the sea floor.

“They’re not all buoyant. Some sink, some remain floating at different levels based on their density and the water pressure,” said Charles Rolsky, a Ph.D. researcher who studies ocean plastic pollution at Arizona State University.

There’s also the possibility that the contraption might break up in storms and simply make more plastic trash.

“The ocean is strong and powerful and likes to rip things up,” said Miriam Goldstein, director of ocean policy at the Center for American Progress and an oceanographer who together with physical oceanographer Kim Martini has been publishing critiques of the project.

The foundation – which openly refers to itself as a "moon shot project" – responds that cleanups are an important part of the story.