The massive plastic-cleaning device invented by a 24-year-old to clean the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is finally being put to the test. Here’s what it’s up against.

boyan slat the ocean cleanup

  • On September 8th, the Ocean Cleanup launched the first of many massive plastic-cleaning arrays into the Pacific Ocean.
  • There’s a lot of plastic in the world’s oceans, with much of it congregating in places like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
  • Dutch innovator Boyan Slat came up with the idea for these systems, which he hopes can scoop plastic out of water.
  • But there are big questions, including whether the systems will survive the ocean’s forces, harm marine life, and collect plastic.
  • This is the first time the systems are really being put to the test — if they work, they could be part of a solution to a massive problem.

It was 11 p.m. on Boyan Slat’s birthday when he realized he had a problem.

"We were having this barbecue [at the office]," he told Business Insider. Because of that, most of Slat’s team was still available when the call came in. There was an urgent structural problem with the giant plastic-cleaning device that the team had been working on.

Slat, who turned 24 on July 27th, is the creator of the Ocean Cleanup, an organization attempting to remove plastic from some of the most trash-filled areas of the ocean, starting with a region so full of debris that it’s referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Slat and his team of scientists and engineers have designed — and redesigned — massive floating cleaning arrays that will theoretically help trap plastic debris floating near the surface.

With the launch of the first 2,000-foot array scheduled for September 8th, the Ocean Cleanup’s test was just over a month away.

But the call that came in on the night of July 27th meant that a serious issue had to be quickly solved.

The plastic-cleaning system is made of sections of large durable floating plastic pipe, with a 10-foot barrier underneath it to trap debris. To stop that system from rolling, especially when facing intense seas like those in the Pacific, steel stabilizers had been added to the design. While working on assembly, the team realized these stabilizers were crushing the rubber components that helped hold everything together.

Over the next five days, the team adjusted the design at the shipyard in Alameda, California, where the cleanup array was being built.

The actual assembly wasn’t finished until a week before the launch.

Then, under the bright sun on September 8th, a supply ship and offshore tug called the Maersk Launcher towed the cleanup system out under the Golden Gate Bridge towards the Pacific.

A first test with serious implications

Slat’s system will soon face its first true test: seeing whether it can maintain structure and stability while still moving in the open sea.

But removing ocean plastic is a complex enough problem that scientists question whether or not it’s possible to do efficiently or safely at all.

The stakes are high — there’s a mind-boggling amount of plastic in the world’s oceans. So far, no one knows if the Ocean Cleanup array will effectively capture much plastic, and if something goes wrong, the floating array could cause harm. Some scientists fear that as a large, floating structure, it will attract marine life that could then ingest plastic or be caught up in the mess. Some fear it could also be broken up by a storm and contribute to the problem. 

Perhaps the biggest question: If it does work, can it collect the massive amounts of plastic necessary to make a dent in the ocean plastic problem?

the ocean cleanup plastic great pacific garbage patch

It’s in the water — will it work?

On September 8th, Slat’s organization began the journey out to sea with its first official 2,000-foot-long plastic cleaning array, System 001, named "Wilson" after Tom Hanks’ volleyball friend in the movie "Castaway."

The Maersk Launcher’s first stop for the system is a testing site about 240 miles offshore. The Ocean Cleanup crew traveling with the array plans to spend two weeks there. 

In order to collect plastic, the long tube system will be pulled into a U-shape that will theoretically be able to move faster than drifting plastic, catching large quantities inside the U.

At the testing area, the team will pull the system into the U-shape for the first time to see if it can maintain structural integrity, watch how it moves, and see if it can turn in case the ocean spins it a different direction. If all goes well, the system — which will face storms and waves that can regularly top 40 feet — will be dragged another 1,200 nautical miles to the garbage patch.

Once at the patch, Slat and colleagues hope the system can collect up to 50 metric tons of plastic in its first year — a little more than three garbage trucks-full.

Over the past several years, the Cleanup group has redesigned the contraption several times. In the current system, a tapered wall that reaches 10 feet down at the middle is supposed to help corral plastic until a boat can pick it up every six weeks to a couple months.

"I’m confident that we’ve been able to eliminate all the risks that we can eliminate before actually launching the system," Slat said.

The Ocean Cleanup

A mind-boggling problem

We don’t have a perfect picture of how much plastic is in the ocean, or how much pours into it every year. We do know it’s a stunning quantity.

A lot of garbage washes back to shore, as beachgoers and viewers of certain viral videos noticed earlier this summer, but a good amount of plastic eventually drifts into one of five massive ocean regions called gyres. Enough plastic converges in these regions that many refer to them as "garbage patches."

The area targeted by The Ocean Cleanup is called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s the best-known of these regions and is often referred to as the largest gyre, though the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says there’s no reliable measurement of the size of any of these patches.

More than 320 million metric tons of plastic are produced every year. "Our current estimates are that at least 8 million metric tons of plastic get into the ocean every year, which is the equivalent of one city garbage truck of plastic getting dumped into the ocean every minute," said Emily Woglom, the vice president for conservation policy and programs at the Ocean Conservancy. That’s a low estimate, because it counts only waste from shore and not items like fishing nets discarded at sea.

The Ocean Cleanup researchers have studied the garbage patch and estimated there are at least 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic in the region, weighing 79,000 metric tons. According to the group’s research, 1.7 trillion pieces are tiny microplastics, but more than 90% of the overall plastic mass comes from larger pieces of plastic — frequently from lost fishing nets — that has yet to break down into smaller pieces.

All this plastic affects at least 800 marine species, according to Woglom. It gets into the food chain, strangles animals like turtles and seals, is eaten by whales and albatrosses that starve with stomachs full of indigestible trash, and breaks down into tiny pieces that are devoured by fish. Ocean fish that humans eat have plastic in them. 

Yet there’s still debate about where exactly the plastic is. Some scientists believe most of it is already too broken down and distributed throughout the ocean for it to be worth skimming what’s accessible at the surface, as the Ocean Cleanup is attempting.

Eben Schwartz, marine debris program manager for the California Coastal Commission, told National Geographic that only about 3% of what enters the oceans is eventually found on the surface of the gyres.

Slat points out that the Ocean Cleanup’s research expedition found most plastic in the gyres to be close to the surface. Some plastics are more likely to sink from the start, but that’s not what the cleanup arrays are focused on.

"Once it’s out there, it doesn’t go away by itself," Slat said. "It has to be cleaned up and it gets more harmful over time," since it does continue to break down into smaller plastics.

Eventually, the expedition may reveal more about where plastic does settle in the water, said Laurent Lebreton, lead oceanographer with the Ocean Cleanup. In an upcoming mission, the team plans to sample water down to the seabed, both to figure out where in the water column plastic is most common and where it comes from.

180423_Screen_Assembly 7_2 The Ocean Cleanup

Some scientists are skeptical

While Slat’s plan is widely considered inspiring — check out the comments on any story about the project — a number of scientists have raised questions about the initiative.

Some of these questions are the same ones posed by Slat and his colleagues, including whether the system can collect plastic and survive the forces of the Pacific. As a large plastic structure itself, it could get broken up and become a lot more ocean plastic debris, oceanographer Kara Lavender Law of the Sea Education Association told Wired. Plus, it could gradually shed more plastic particles into the ocean over time, she said.

survey of 15 experts in ocean plastic pollution found that many were concerned the system would attract and kill marine life. Even though the Cleanup has tweaked its designs to help deal with these problems — it’s just a solid wall corralling plastic now, not any sort of netting that could entangle animals — animals will still be drawn to a floating mass and may end up entangled in the debris.

The Ocean Cleanup has conducted an Environmental Impact Assessment, responded to concerns, and made changes to the system. The group has also said it’s willing to redesign the system as needed.

"As with any novel technology, success is not guaranteed, but this is exactly why we test, test, and test again. Until the final risks and uncertainties have been mitigated, System 001 is still labeled a ‘beta system,’" a representative for the group told Business Insider.

"I do think that as the Cleanup goes forward we need to make sure that there’s close monitoring and that the Cleanup folks are transparent about the effectiveness as well as any unintended impacts on marine species or navigation," said Woglom of the Ocean Conservancy. "I think it’s going to be really interesting to see how it plays out."

the ocean cleanup launch

Stopping plastic from entering the oceans is still the key

Even if the Ocean Cleanup system works and can stand the forces of the sea, scaling it up to the point that it can remove a significant proportion of plastic will be a massive challenge.

The Cleanup estimates that a full deployment of 60 systems, some larger than the first one, could remove 50% of plastic currently in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within five years. That depends on everything working perfectly and on continuous funding — two things that are far from guaranteed. And of course, more plastic continues to flow into the water as time goes on.

Designing and building the first system cost about $23 million, though Slat estimates future systems could be built for under $6 million. The Ocean Cleanup plans to make and sell products out of the collected ocean plastic in order to raise money, and the group hopes companies and charities fund and create their own future cleanup arrays.

So far, the project’s funding has almost exclusively come from individuals, including big donors like Salesforce founder Marc Benioff and entrepreneur Peter Thiel.

"If we have all the money in the world, that’s fantastic, let’s do it, but I’m encouraged that that is not the only solution being pursued," said Woglom.

Other existing efforts focus more on stopping plastic from flowing into the ocean altogether. The Ocean Conservancy organizes an annual volunteer effort to pick up trash from beaches (the next one is September 15th). In 2017, volunteers collected 9,000 tons of trash. It would take a lot of cleanup arrays to gather a similar quantity.

Some groups also collect garbage at waterways. Baltimore has trash-collecting water wheels that have trapped more than 900 tons of trash in the Inner Harbor since May 2014.

Slat knows that cleaning up the garbage patch is not the only solution to our plastic problem. He also thinks that stopping plastic from getting to the gyres in the first place will require big technological leaps forward.

Right now, Slat believes, we have a chance to take a shot at plastic in the garbage patch itself — something that no one else is trying. 

"If we do fail, I think there would be a risk that [a gyre cleanup] will not happen for a very long time," he said.

"Everybody wants there to be one simple thing we can do, and then everybody fights about whether or not their thing is the thing," said Woglom. "And the truth is, that just like climate and just like any global environmental challenge, we’re going to have to work across a range of strategies."

SEE ALSO: The massive plastic-cleaning device invented by a 24-year-old is headed out to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — here’s what the launch looked like

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