Huge floating device isn't trapping plastic in Pacific Ocean


A floating device sent to corral a swirling island of trash in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii has not swept up any plastic waste. But the young innovator behind the project said Monday that a fix was in the works.

Boyan Slat, 24, who launched the Pacific Ocean cleanup project, said the speed of the solar-powered barrier isn't allowing it to hold on to the plastic it catches.

"Sometimes the system actually moves slightly slower than the plastic, which of course you don't want because then you have a chance of losing the plastic again," Slat said in an interview with The Associated Press.

A crew of engineers will reach the U-shaped boom Tuesday and work for the next few weeks to widen its span so that it catches more wind and waves to help it go faster, he said.

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In this Sept. 8, 2018 file photo, a ship tows The Ocean Cleanup's first buoyant trash-collecting device toward the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco en route to the Pacific Ocean. AP Photo/Lorin Eleni Gill

A ship towed the 2,000-foot-long barrier in September from San Francisco to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest of five ocean whirlpools where much of the world's plastic accumulates, about twice the size of Texas. It has been in place since the end of October, Slat said.

The plastic barrier with a tapered 10-foot-deep screen is intended to act like a coastline, trapping some of the 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic that scientists estimate are swirling in the patch, while allowing marine life to safely swim beneath it. The garbage patch isn't an island and it's even difficult to see with the naked eye, "60 Minutes" reported in September — it's a vast soup of floating debris, much of it tiny and below the surface.

Speaking to "60 Minutes" before the device was launched into the ocean, Slat said the project is the first phase of an ambitious goal to deploy at least 60 of the cleanup systems in the next two to three years.

The Dutchman told the broadcast he came up with the idea as a teenager eight years ago while on a diving trip off the coast of Greece. He said he was horrified by how much plastic he saw in the water and began collecting and analyzing it, and thinking of ways to clean it up. He laid out his vision at 18 in a TEDx talk that quickly went viral, and raised more than $30 million to get the project off the ground, "60 Minutes" reported. Engineers spent months constructing the device at an old naval base outside San Francisco.

Speaking to The Associated Press of the new setback, Slat said he is not deterred because engineers expected to make tweaks to the system.

"What we're trying to do has never been done before. So, of course we were expecting to still need to fix a few things before it becomes fully operational," he said of the system created by the Ocean Cleanup, an organization he founded.

"We've given ourselves a year after launch to get this thing working," he said.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn't what you think

The project has received a lot of hype, but it's not without its detractors. Among those skeptical of the Ocean Cleanup is George Leonard, chief scientist of the Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group. Leonard said that even if plastic trash can be taken out of the ocean, a lot more is pouring in each year.

Leonard said a solution must include a multipronged approach, including stopping plastic from reaching the ocean and educating people to reduce consumption of single-use plastic containers and bottles.

Slat agreed that preventing more plastic from entering the ocean is part of the solution but said something needs to be done about what's already there.

"This plastic doesn't go away by itself, and to just let hundreds of thousands of tons of plastic be out there to be fragmented into these small and dangerous microplastics to me seems like an unacceptable scenario," he said.