You’d be hard-pressed to find a person who isn’t at least vaguely aware of Boyan Slat’s Ocean Cleanup project. In 2018, after nearly seven years of fundraising, Slat’s idea had raised some $31 million and stolen the hearts of millions around the world who wanted to see our oceans finally rid of the plastic scourge. Financial supporters included Peter Thiel, the guy who co-founded PayPal then became the first outside investor in Facebook, and Marc and Lynne Benioff, who basically brought cloud computing to the public.
Back in September of 2018, System 001 weighed anchor from San Francisco and began its maiden voyage out to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. After about a month, it completed the 1,300-mile journey, and the 2,000-foot contraption began attempting to do what it was created for. Soon, however, it became clear that there was a problem: the enormous boom wasn’t holding the plastic it collected.
“It has been four weeks since we deployed System 001 in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP),” Slat wrote in an update on The Ocean Cleanup’s website. “In this time, we have observed that plastic is exiting the system once it is collected.”
As with any endeavor, the Ocean Cleanup had its fair share of detractors from the outset. “Cleaning up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is, in my view, not a very clever way to address this problem,” marine biologist Jan van Franeker said to The Verge. “It’s such a waste of energy.”
Slat and his team weren’t deterred by the nay-sayers or the fact that the system wasn’t working, and they aren’t phased by the recent setback. “We are currently working on causes and solutions to remedy this,” Slat wrote just after he announced the issue. “Because this is our beta system, and this is the first deployment of any ocean cleanup system, we have been preparing ourselves for surprises.”
The floating boom was tugged back to port, where Ocean Cleanup workers immediately began fixing the problems. “System 001 is our first system and we planned to learn a lot from this new technology,” they wrote. “During the four months of deployment, the challenges we faced have brought us a greater understanding of the environment of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and how our system behaves in it. All three shifts collected incredible amounts of data which we are now using to enhance the design of our technology. System 001 has been brought back to port, but we will return to the patch with an improved design in the coming months.”