The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Is Finally Being Cleaned Up

Published on October 8, 2019

Finally, one company is giving back to the earth rather than taking from it. The Ocean Cleanup Foundation, a nonprofit organization out of the Netherlands, created and installed a device that floats around the ocean cleaning up bits of plastic—from massive pieces and nets to small pieces of plastic that have been broken down or chipped from larger pieces. The device was installed in the ocean on October 16 of last year, but had some trouble keeping the plastic debris that it collected because it traveled slowly while the currents pushed plastic debris back out. Nearly a year later, the system is finally catching debris and keeping it as intended.

The system, which is called System 001, is the first of its kind to be used to trap plastic bits that are floating around in the ocean. The system was installed off the coast of San Francisco with the idea that it would combat the growing Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The Garbage Patch, which was discovered in 1997, describes a mass of plastic and trash that has been swept into one part of the Pacific Ocean through the currents. Since plastic cannot break down, any plastic that ends up in the Pacific Ocean ends up here. The mass, a floating island of trash, spans a mass that equates to roughly the size of Texas or a small handful of France’s, though it’s continuously growing and shrinking based on tides.

Combating the issue isn’t so simple, as the chunks of plastic range in size from massive fishing nets that are part of the debris from the 2011 Japan tsunami all the way down to tiny micro plastics that fish and other sea life end up ingesting. Simply picking the trash up is not easily done, as the larger chunks of plastic are not the worst of the problem. The last year has been somewhat of a testing period for The Ocean Cleanup Foundation’s System 001, as it encountered problems keeping the garbage that it caught as well as other mechanical issues that caused some breakage. The device works similar to a net and a buoy, acting as a barrier from the ocean floor to the surface that catches and traps garbage within a certain area. Similar to a containment boom that is used to contain the debris from an oil spill in the ocean, the System 001 acts as a trap while a group of people go and retrieve the pieces of garbage that have been collected.

The System 001 Is Finally Successful

Until recently, however, the device did not actually work to capture much plastic debris. “After beginning this journey seven years ago, this first year of testing in the unforgivable environment of the high seas strongly indicates that our vision is attainable and that the beginning of our mission to rid the ocean of plastic garbage, which has accumulated for decades, is within our sights,” said the CEO of The Ocean Cleanup Foundation, Boyan Slat, according to an announcement posted on the company’s website. The CEO also Tweeted a photo of the debris that has been collected thus far, which ranges in size from entire tires to unidentifiable pieces of micro plastics.

If all continues to go as planned, The Ocean Cleanup hopes to launch dozens more of the devices by 2021 to help combat the issue further. While it may not be able to eradicate it completely, it will likely be able to make a decent dent in a problem that has only gotten worse in recent years.

Julia Sachs is a former Managing Editor at Grit Daily. She covers technology, social media and disinformation. She is based in Utah and before the pandemic she liked to travel.

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