After countless hours and millions of dollars, a 2000-foot-long invention was set loose in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Francisco to combat plastic debris. The project, which is financially supported by a nonprofit Ocean Cleanup, has a goal of trapping upwards of 150,000 pounds of plastic within a year of the giant trap’s deployment in hopes to take out half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch once other structures are set out.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a large mashup of trash that hovers between California and Hawaii and could hold 1.8 trillion pieces of scattered debris, as well as some 87,000 tons of improperly disposed of plastic.
Before any major cleanup can happen, the trap, also known as the boom, will be towed to a testing site and remain there for two weeks. If all criteria are met, the trap will then be taken 1,400 miles away to the garbage patch, where it is planned to arrive by the middle of October.
The steps of the newly-invented cleanup are supposed to go something like this: first, the boom is released from the vessel where the current is tasked with the job to pull into the shape of the letter “U”. Then, the boom will be at the mercy of the ocean as it drifts around controlled by the wind and waves. However, during drifting, the trap is to collect plastic like the video game favorite, Pac-Man.
The impenetrable that hangs almost 10 feet below the boom is designed to catch smaller pieces of plastic. Any plastic captured would be transported to land, sorted, and recycled. More importantly, marine life would be able to pass under the boom and be unharmed. Although that is the plan, the ocean remains unpredictable and there is no guarantee of future performance brought forth by simulation models.
“There’s worry that you can’t remove the plastic without removing marine life at the same time,” said chief scientist at the Ocean Conservancy George Leonard. “We know from the fishing industry if you put any sort of structure in the open ocean, it acts as a fish-aggregating device.”
The creation of an entire ecological community is at stake, as small fish curious about the large trap can attract bigger fish and reinstate the food chain cycle.
The trap’s resistance to corrosive salt water, high winds and other environmental challenges that could be faced in the open ocean has not yet been measured. Additionally, the doubt of truly being able to get rid of half of the patch in only five years is lurking overhead.
The brief time frame seems to be the company’s biggest challenge.
“…To me this is where I think my largest anxiety lies at this point in time,” said Boyan Slat, founder of Ocean Cleanup, of the system’s ability to collect and retain plastic. “First of all, it’s something that we haven’t really been able to test very well.” However, at the boom’s release, Slat was very optimistic.
Since the beginning of Ocean Cleanup in 2013, nearly $35 million has been contributed from numerous donors, such as the chief executive of salesforce.com and the cofounder of PayPal. A sizable percentage of that money paid for the boom and helped underwrite research. A recent study written by Ocean Cleanup was published in the Journal of Scientific Reports, which put a number on the full extent of the garbage patch. The price to build future booms hovers around the ballpark about $5.8 million each.
The less-optimistic inquired whether the creation of booms was the most economically efficient way to address the ‘plastic in the ocean’ problem.
“I fully agree that this is not the full solution to plastic pollution,” said Slat in response to critics. “While it’s necessary to prevent more plastic from entering the ocean, what is there already isn’t going to go away by itself. We have to clean it up at some point in time and, actually, I would say the sooner the better.”
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