After years of hype and excitement, Boyan Slat’s Ocean Cleanup hasn’t exactly enjoyed the finest maiden voyage. But to its credit, the 2,000-foot System 001 nicknamed Wilson was initially launched from the San Francisco Bay back in September as a test run. So maybe don’t rule out Slat’s new system just yet.
The plan was to reach the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and put Wilson to work, seeing in real conditions if the massive floating array could carry out the mission it was designed for: tow a massive U-shaped barrier through the garbage patch and allow it to collect as much plastic as possible within the first three meters of the water’s surface. If all went well, the organization would launch 59 more Wilsons to take on the task of cleaning up an estimated 50 percent of the garbage patch over the next five years.
The first major snag came last month when we found out the system’s massive boom wasn’t actually holding onto all the plastic it was designed to collect. “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.”
The optimist can argue it’s better to learn these things in the early stages than it is for breakdowns later, but the latest speed bump now has the entire project being towed 12,000 nautical miles back to port. Over the weekend, during a routine inspection, the Ocean Cleanup team learned that a 60-foot section of the device had broken free.
“We are, of course, quite bummed about this as 1) we hoped to stay out for a bit longer to collect more data on plastic-system interaction, and 2) it introduces an additional challenge to be solved,” Slat, Ocean Cleanup’s CEO, said. “At the same time, we also realize that setbacks like this are inevitable when pioneering new technology at a rapid pace.”
So far, the Ocean Cleanup has collected 4,400 pounds of plastic that’s being brought back to shore. From there, the organization will investigate the cause of the break and says they believe they’ll have the system back out sometime this year.
“It’s important to note that both the 580-meter main section and the 18-meter end section are completely stable; all bulkheads are intact, and the end section has two stabilizers affixed to it, so rollover is not possible,” Slat wrote in a statement. “Also, because no material was lost, there have been no safety risks for the crew, environment or passing marine traffic.”