The Ocean Cleanup on its way to the Great Pacific Plastic Garbage Patch

Years ago, young Dutch innovator Boyan Slat envisioned a plan to combat plastic waste in the world’s oceans. Now that vision has become a reality with the deployment of The Ocean Cleanup’s first of many ships that will tow the world’s first ocean cleanup system out to sea from San Francisco Bay. Its destination: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The Ocean Cleanup System 001 barrier

The Ocean Cleanup's System 001 barrier on its way from San Francisco Bay to the Great Pacific Plastic Garbarge Patch.

The cleanup device - ‘System 001’ - heads for a location 240 nautical miles from the north Californian coast where it will start a 2-week trial. It will then head for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, 1200 nautical miles offshore, where it will begin the task of cleaning up the plastic pollution.

What started with hundreds of scale model tests, prototypes and research expeditions has turned into a fully working 600-meter U-shaped barrier. The floating contraption also has a 3-meter skirt that hangs suspended beneath, catching the concentrations of plastic debris using wind and waves. Because of its U-shape, the debris is funneled into the center of the barrier. It moves slightly faster than the plastic debris, skimming the surface of the ocean, like a giant Pac-Man.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

System 001 will be positioned in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located halfway between Hawaii and California. This area has the largest accumulation of plastic waste in the world containing 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, covering an area twice the size of Texas.

After the plastic is collected, it will be brought back ashore within 6 months. Once on land, The Ocean Cleanup will recycle the plastics into products which they plan to sell. The proceeds will be used to fund further cleanup operations.

Although the barrier is used to prove that the technology works to clean up plastic waste, it also has a second goal. The first deployment will also be used to collect data to improve the design of future devices. To this end, the system is fitted out with solar-powered and satellite-connected sensors. It will also be equipped with cameras and navigation lights that communicate its position to passing marine traffic. The cameras will also be used to monitor the system and the environment.

Boyan Slat is very thankful for the support his project has received from around the globe since its conceivement. “This makes me confident that, if we manage to make the technology work, the cleanup will happen”, he said.

However, Boyan does realize that this is just the beginning of a long journey. He notes: “Today’s launch is an important milestone, but the real celebration will come once the first plastic returns to shore. For 60 years, mankind has been putting plastic into the oceans; from that day onwards, we’re taking it back out again.”

Where to next?

Once the plastic removal is a success and funding is available, The Ocean Cleanup project will extend their fleet to about 60 System 001 barriers over the coming 2 years, mainly focused on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Once all are fully deployed, the project will be able to remove half of the plastic waste in the patch within 5 years.

The Ocean Cleanup

Boyan Slat founded The Ocean Cleanup back in 2013. The Dutch NGO, headquartered in the Netherlands’ city Rotterdam, now employs around 80 engineers and researchers. They all share the same the goal, getting rid of at least 90% of the plastic pollution in the world’s oceans by 2040.