3bl logo
Subscribe

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Company Deploys Massive Plastic Catcher to Clean Up Pacific Garbage Patch

Grant Whittington headshotWords by Grant Whittington
Energy & Environment
hero

Ocean Cleanup, an environmental firm with its sights on shrinking the unparalleled size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, released a 2,000-foot-long plastic catcher system into northern California's San Francisco Bay last weekend. The multimillion dollar structure was tested for two weeks in  the bay before being carted off to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The garbage patch, gyrating between California and Hawaii, is twice the size of Texas and contains an estimated 1.8 trillion plastic pieces of plastic.

This massive contraption, named System 001, will act as an artificial coastline, corralling the plastic to one easy-to-sweep area by contouring itself into a ‘U’ shape from the ocean current and winds. A 10-foot long net will drape under the structure into the ocean and capture the debris. A large, garbage truck-like ship will then come and remove the garbage System 001 accumulates.

System 001 is not, however, foolproof. While millions of dollars have been poured into the designing and testing of the product, it’s difficult to simulate the conditions of the middle of the ocean. In a video posted on Facebook, Ocean Cleanup’s 24-year-old founder and Dutch entrepreneur Boyan Slat listed the three challenges ahead of the plastic catcher’s launch.

Three challenges or unknowns


  • First, the behavior of the cleanup system: will the system react to the environment as Ocean Cleanup hopes? Will it form the desired ‘U’ shape when hit with the various wind patters and waves?

  • The interaction between the plastic and the cleanup system: can the cleanup system not only collect the plastic, but efficiently retain the plastic? Slat admitted that this was his greatest fear prior to the launch, stating that it’s difficult to test this to scale in their labs.

  • The survivability of the cleanup system: can the system endure the destructive environment of the ocean?

In the plastic catcher’s first year of operation, Ocean Cleanup hopes it will collect nearly 50 tons of garbage. And that’s just the beginning: Ocean Cleanup’s five-year plan aims to cut the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by 50 percent by rolling out a fleet of 60 plastic catchers. Each structure is expected to cost upwards of $5.8 million.

Ocean Cleanup, started by then 19-year-old Slat, has raised $35 million through crowdfunding and investments from millionaires including Marc Benioff of Salesforce and Peter Thiel co-founder of Paypal.

The company fully realized the scope of its cleanup when they launched its “Mega Expedition” in 2015. The two-year research project commenced when 30 vessels went to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to collect samples. After sifting and sorting through 1.2 million plastic pieces, Ocean Cleanup was able to estimate the scope of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

According to many sources, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is estimated to be three times the size of France; is so ridden with garbage that it contains 250 pieces of plastic for every human in the world; and weighs 80,000 tons – 4-16 times more than previous estimates prior to the study.

While the venture is ambitious considering the alarming rates of plastic entering waterways, Ocean Cleanup hopes its business model will be self-sustaining. The company plans to recycle the plastics they fish out of the ocean into products they can sell. Any profits will then be diverted back into the organization to fund its new fleet.

While Ocean Cleanup is optimistic about its technology, some critics question whether investments in such technology are the right approach.

"Predictions that the Ocean Cleanup could remove 90% of surface plastics globally by 2040 using a full fleet of systems have been met with skepticism from environmentalists," wrote Hannah Summers, a reporter for the Guardian. "Critics of the project also fear the system could pose a threat to marine life."

Image credit: Ocean Cleanup

Grant Whittington headshotGrant Whittington

Based in Washington, DC, Grant works as a program assistant at SEEP Network, an international development nonprofit. A proud graduate of the University of Maryland, Grant spent four months post-grad living in Armenia where he worked for Habitat for Humanity and the World Food Programme. Grant is passionate about humanitarianism and finding sustainable approaches to international development. He enjoys playing trivia with friends but is still seeking his first victory - he ceaselessly blames his friends lack of preparation.

Read more stories by Grant Whittington

More stories from Energy & Environment