Ocean cleanup device successfully collects plastic for first time

By Daniel Boffey

A huge floating device designed by Dutch scientists to clean up an island of rubbish in the Pacific ocean that is three times the size of France has successfully picked up plastic from the high-seas for the first time.

Boyan Slat, the creator of the Ocean Cleanup project, announced on Twitter that the 600-metre (2,000ft) long floating boom had captured and retained debris from what is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Alongside a picture of the collected rubbish, which includes a car wheel, Slat tweeted: “Our ocean cleanup system is now finally catching plastic, from one-ton ghost nets to tiny microplastics! Also, anyone missing a wheel?”

About 600,000 to 800,000 metric tons of fishing gear are abandoned or lost at sea each year. Another 8m metric tons of plastic waste flows in from beaches.

Crew members sort through plastic on board a support vessel on the Pacific Ocean
Crew members sort through plastic on board a support vessel on the Pacific Ocean. Photograph: AP

Ocean currents have brought a vast patch of such detritus together halfway between Hawaii and California where it is kept in rough formation by an oceanic gyre, a whirlpool of currents.

The vast cleaning system is designed to not only collect large visible pieces of plastic and discarded fishing nets, but also tiny pieces of plastic.

The plastic barrier which floats on the surface of the sea has a three-metre (10ft) deep screen below it which is intended to trap some of the 1.8tn pieces of plastic without disturbing marine life below.

The device is fitted with satellites and sensors so it can communicate its position to a vessel that will collect the gathered rubbish every few months.

“The concept works, the foundation is in order,” a spokesman for the non-profit Ocean Cleanup said. “Now it’s all about perfecting things.”

The plan is to now scale-up the device and make it stronger so that it can retain plastic for up to a year before collection is necessary.

The Ocean Cleanup project’s system retains plastic in front of an extended cork line in the Pacific Ocean
The Ocean Cleanup project’s system retains plastic in front of an extended cork line in the Pacific Ocean. Photograph: AP

During a previous pilot of four months at sea, the boom broke apart and no plastic was collected. Since then, changes have been made to the design of the system, with the addition of a ‘parachute anchor’ to slow down the device’s movement in the ocean.

The latest pilot began in June. The project was started in 2013, and its design has undergone several major revisions. It is hoped that the final design will be able to clean up half of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.