World’s First Ocean Cleaning System

World’s First Ocean Cleaning System

The Dutch nonprofit Ocean Cleanup deployed a 2,000-foot-long, $20 million unmanned boom designed to gather some of the Pacific Ocean’s massive amounts of plastic garbage from San Francisco Bay on Saturday. It’s not a 100% sure thing yet. First it’s got to be tested.

The buoyant structure is currently being hauled out to a site where it will undergo testing—and if it passes, it will be brought to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to begin the task of trapping some of the estimated 1.8 trillion pieces (80,000 tons by weight) of plastic garbage out there. Promotional materials show the structure is comprised of a long floater with a plastic skirt underneath, intended to move along with the current but at a slightly faster pace due to pressure from wind and waves. If it works as designed, it should form a U-shape that collects plastic as it drifts around and would be periodically cleaned by support vessels.

Ocean Cleanup says a fleet of dozens of identical booms could clear half the garbage patch in as little as half a decade, and it could help fund itself by recycling the accumulated plastic. It also says future booms could be much cheaper, at $5.8 million each.

If it works—great! However, the concept has only been tested with scale models and computer simulations. For now the concern that marine life will be swept up with the plastic.

“There’s worry that you can’t remove the plastic without removing marine life at the same time,” said George Leonard, chief scientist at the Ocean Conservancy. “We know from the fishing industry if you put any sort of structure in the open ocean, it acts as a fish-aggregating device.”

It is unclear how well the boom would fare on the open ocean, where it faces high winds, corrosive salt water and other environmental challenges. And then there’s the question of whether it is possible to clean half of the garbage patch in just five years.

“I think the big challenge here is not the long-term goal but the short-term goal,” Mr. Leonard said on Saturday. “Can it remove plastic at all?”