The Great Pacific garbage patch in the northern Pacific ocean holds an estimated 1.8 trillion hard-to-see pieces of plastic that float around on or just below the water’s surface. They’re kept swirling in an area that could be anywhere between the sizes of Texas and Russia by a rotating current system called a gyre.

Cleaning up the pieces has proven to be a difficult task, but The Ocean Cleanup, founded by Dutch inventor Boyan Slat when he was 18 years old, has been working on the problem for years. On September 8, 2018, the company launched a 2,000-foot (600-meter) long U-shaped barrier into the Pacific from San Francisco Bay.

The floating faux coastline will hopefully be an effective trash collection solution for the problem. The video above explains the technology.

Our floating systems are designed to capture plastics ranging from small pieces just millimeters in size, up to large debris, including massive discarded fishing nets (ghost nets), which can be tens of meters wide.

Models show that a full-scale cleanup system roll-out (a fleet of approximately 60 systems) could clean 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in just five years.

After fleets of systems are deployed into every ocean gyre, combined with source reduction, The Ocean Cleanup projects to be able to remove 90% of ocean plastic by 2040.

Their maiden voyage will help determine if the system is sea life-friendly as designed and collecting as expected, or if it will need additional work.

Boyan Slat, now age 24, explains the challenges and risks surrounding the free-floating boom in this video:

Whether this works or not, conservation experts like George Leonard, chief scientist of the Ocean Conservancy, remind us that…

A solution must include a multi-pronged approach, including stopping plastic from reaching the ocean and more education so people reduce consumption of single use plastic containers and bottles.

“If you don’t stop plastics from flowing into the ocean, it will be a Sisyphean task,” Leonard said, citing the Greek myth of a task never completed. He added that on September 15 about 1 million volunteers around the world will collect trash from beaches and waterways as part of the Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanup. Volunteers last year collected about 10,000 tons of plastics worldwide over two hours, he said.

Related reading: Giant Trash Collecting Device To Be Deployed in the Pacific Ocean and What are Garbage Patches? How you can help (pdf).

Watch these videos next: Ocean Confetti, the challenge of microplastics, One Plastic Beach: Making art from found beach plastic, Gyrecraft – Transforming sea plastics into valuable objects, and from 2013: What is a gyre?

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