SAN FRANCISCO – Cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, estimated to contain as much as 142 thousand tons of plastic garbage spread over an area that covers a million square miles, is no small task. But it starts with scooping up two white plastic crates, some plastic bottles and five discarded commercial fishing nets.
That was the first trash captured by a 2,000-foot floating boom hauled deep into the middle of the Pacific Ocean in the middle of October by The Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch nonprofit project aimed at clearing out the ever-growing accumulation of plastic trash that collects mid-ocean. How successful it will be remains to be seen, but the effort has captured the public’s imagination.
The passive system involves a floating series of connected 4-foot booms that form a giant horseshoe at the surface of the ocean. Below that hangs a 9-foot skirt that corrals the tiny pieces of plastic trash that float in the water. The action of the currents and waves push trash into the system’s center while the micro-plastic, as it's called, is captured by the hanging barrier.
“That was just the first test, of course, the plastic we collected in the first five days for scientific purposes. We wanted to make sure the system was working correctly,” said Francesco Ferrari, the nonprofit’s environmental monitoring coordinator.
The hope is that the device, the first of a planned fleet of 60 or more, can strain out the millions of pounds of plastic trash that collects in slow-moving ocean whirlpools called gyres, which can be hundreds of miles across. It will then be scooped up and taken by ship to land, where it will be recycled.
Ferrari spoke from Honolulu, where he’d flown after spending the past seven weeks at sea as the system was towed out from San Francisco Bay, where it was built, first at a testing site 350 nautical miles offshore and then another 850 out to sea.
“We weren’t aiming for a big extraction, it was just five days to test. And it worked,” Ferrari said.
The group of 11 scientists and engineers has been testing the system since Sept. 8. That was the day, accompanied by a press boat, fans and the cheering family of Boyan Slat, the 24-year-old Dutchman and CEO of The Ocean Cleanup who came up with the idea after dropping out of college, that the system was towed unassembled out from under the Golden Gate Bridge to a spot off the California coast.
There, it was assembled and tested for seaworthiness for 2½ weeks.
“It was the first time the entire system had been put together. There were a lot of theories about how it would work, but real life is always different,” Ferrari said.
The trial went well, so the system was disassembled and towed to its final placement 1,200 nautical miles out, halfway between the West Coast and Hawaii to the middle of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It took almost two weeks to sail to the spot, where the staff once again put the device together and began testing it.
Although it’s officially titled System 001, the crew dubbed the trash-collecting system “Wilson” after the volleyball Tom Hanks turns into a companion in the movie “Cast Away” when he’s lost on a deserted island in the middle of the Pacific.
On their way out into the Pacific, the Ocean Cleanup staff and the crew of 17 on the transportation ship encountered heavy weather, including 12-foot waves and winds up to 35 miles per hour. “It was interesting to see the reaction of Wilson – it seemed to us he reacted rather well. He moved with the waves,” Ferrari said.
After a week at the final site, the ship sailed to Hawaii to swap out the crew and do an equipment hand-off, leaving another ship to stay and monitor Wilson.
Testing included placing buoyant GPS units in the water to see the pathway of items floating near the system and how they reacted and moved.
The first week of tests went well, though Ferrari was careful to say that it was too early to make any definitive conclusions about the overall goal of The Ocean Cleanup, which is to deploy 60 such systems by 2020. The group hopes it can clean up 50 percent of the garbage in the garbage patch in five years time.
“We don’t have enough time yet to make an estimate,” Ferrari said.
The area of the Trash Patch is extremely remote, well off any shipping lanes. During their time there, the crew saw no other ships, though they were visited by a pod of six sperm whales, as well as some mahi-mahi and flying fish.
“We had a hydrophone in the water, so we heard the whales approaching. They didn’t really concern themselves with us, they were just passing by,” Ferrari said.
The real testing begins now, as winter cyclones begin to form in the area. The observation crew will monitor the floating system as it’s driven by waves and currents. The ship will stay well away from it while smaller inflatable boats go in to inspect.
Ferrari was on his way to The Ocean Cleanup’s headquarters in Rotterdam, Netherlands, when he spoke with USA TODAY, after having been away from his family for eight weeks. He and the staff will now begin on the next systems so that a fleet can eventually clean up the garbage humans have been pouring into the oceans for decades.
Researchers and policymakers who study the problem of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans have expressed concern both that the Cleanup project might not work as well as its creators hope and that it might also take attention away from the real issue – the ongoing avalanche of plastic pollution that is washed into the world’s oceans every day. The hope is that The Ocean Cleanup will bring awareness and help make people think about the plastic they use and where it ends up.
“Everyone intuitively understands that if someone is brave enough to venture out and do that cleanup, then we have to do our part, too. Without turning off the tap of the plastic that washing into the ocean, we can’t clean up,” said Rolf Halden, a professor of environmental health engineering at Arizona State University who studies plastics in the environment.
"It’s wonderful that people are concerned about the state of the open ocean; it’s so far away and so few people will ever see it firsthand," said Miriam Goldstein, a marine biologist who is director of ocean policy at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.
"It gives us hope for this very remote ecosystem. If this causes people to change their consumer habits, it’s fantastic,” she said.