Senior Editor

The Inertia

Every year, we throw millions of tons of plastic into the ocean. Most of it is thrown into rivers, which lead to the sea. A huge amount of this plastic ends up in gyres – vortexes of circular currents – and eventually it all clumps together in vast floating ocean dumps. This, of course, is bad. But Boyan Slat and his project, fittingly named The Ocean Cleanup, have a plan, and on October 20, the second version of the ocean cleanup devices reached proof of technology.

Slat and his team spent years developing the first vessel, called System 001. 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.

On September 8, 2018, the enormous ocean cleaner weighed anchor from San Francisco Bay. It was a test run of sorts, as all good science requires, and it was heading about 300 miles off shore for a two-week trial. If all went well, it would head to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and begin collecting the plastic that has accumulated there.

The plan was relatively simple — complicated in terms of the sheer size of the operation, but simple in its design. System 001 was massive. Measuring in at nearly 2,000 feet long, it works as a sort of funnel to collect the enormous amounts of floating trash we’ve thrown into the ocean. Boats would tug the systems out to the centers of the five major ocean gyres and let them drift with the same currents that caused all that plastic to end up there in the first place.

After about a month, System 001 completed the 1,300-mile journey, and the 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.”

Slat and his team, however, weren’t deterred by the setback. They’d been planning for any and all manner of issues. “We are currently working on causes and solutions to remedy this,” Slat explained 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.”

In July 2021, after a few years of tinkering, System 002 — or Jenny, if you know her well enough — hit the water for a 12-week test to see how the second version would fare. And as it turns out, it fared well. “The 12-week test campaign has now been concluded successfully – we have now reached proof of technology,” the team said. “System 002 will continue harvesting plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and in tandem, we will start working on System 003, a larger, upgraded ocean system, which is expected to be the blueprint design for scaling to a fleet of systems.”

With a lofty goal of reducing floating plastic in the ocean by 90 percent by 2040, The Ocean Cleanup crew has a difficult task ahead. They’re not worried, though. With the success of System 002, they’re already planning to scale up. “Having taken the learnings from System 002 and applying them to subsequent iterations of the technology, we will scale up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” they said. “With this blueprint for scale-up, we will look to deploy a fleet of systems into all the other four ocean gyres.”


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