After a stint on the sidelines, The Ocean Cleanup Project is bouncing back into action following a few upgrades to its trash-catching system. The team was forced to haul in its huge floating barriers for repairs earlier in the year, and now after making a few upgrades is hopeful it has a system better equipped to take on the massive task of plastic pollution in the ocean.
It was October last year that the Ocean Cleanup Project installed the first version of its trash-collection device. The system is essentially a 600-meter (2,000-ft) U-shaped barrier that floats on the ocean's surface with a skirt dangling below.
Propelled by a combination of the ocean currents, surface waves and wind, the system was supposed to travel faster than the plastic it was built to collect, which is propelled by the current alone, allowing it to accumulate within the barrier and be hauled back to shore by support vessels waiting nearby.
At least that was the theory. The team found that after just a few months the barrier had become fractured and perhaps more problematically, was struggling to maintain the speeds required to gather up the trash. So they hauled it back to shore in January to make some adjustments
Rather than failures, the team describes these as "unscheduled learning opportunities" (have to admire the positive attitude). One of the lessons they've learned, according to CEO Boyan Slat, is that it doesn't actually matter if the system travels faster or slower than the plastic. As long as it does one or the other on a constant basis as it sweeps through the patch, the plastic should be able to build up.The upgraded version is now en route to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, with the team preparing to test out a couple of new features to address the previous shortcomings. One is the attachment of a string of huge inflatable buoys across the system's opening, which it's hoped will add to the windage of the system and pull it through the water faster.
If that fails, the team will turn to Plan B, attaching a huge parachute to the opening. Measuring 20 m (65 ft) across, this is hoped to serve as an anchor of sorts, slowing the system down so that it travels at around the same speed as the water. The team says earlier observations show the plastic can travel much faster than the water current itself, so this should also allow the trash to build up within the U-shaped barrier.
The team has also made a few changes to address the durability issues, building simpler connections between the barrier and floating skirt and removing large stabilizing structures it says are no longer necessary. It has also reduced the size of the barrier by a factor of three and taken a more modular approach to its construction, allowing the team to deploy the system faster and make certain alterations without towing it back to shore.
The Ocean Cleanup Project has previously stated its plans to deploy a fleet of 60 trash-catching systems in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an accumulation of plastic believed to cover 1.6 million sq km (617,000 sq mi), or around three times the size of continental France. It is unclear how these unscheduled "learning opportunities" impact that timeline, but the Project imagines a fleet that size could remove half of that plastic within five years.