A giant floating barrier launched off the coast of San Francisco as part of a $20m project to cleanup a swirling island of rubbish between California and Hawaii, is failing to collect plastic.
The mastermind behind the Ocean Cleanup, an ambitious plan to clear a swathe of the Pacific twice the size of Texas of floating debris, reported four weeks into testing that while the U-shaped device was scooping up plastic, it was then losing it.
Inventor Boyan Slat, 24, said that the slow speed of the solar-powered 600m-long barrier means it is unable to hold on to plastics, but a team of experts is now working on a possible fix.
“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,” Slat explained.
A crew of engineers will work for the next few weeks to widen the span of the floating barrier so that it catches more wind and waves to help it go faster, he said.
The marine apparatus known as System 001, or ‘Wilson’, was towed out to the area known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in September, after Slat’s team of 70 scientists and engineers spent five years testing 273 models and six prototypes.
First plastic pic.twitter.com/53nSlLSytf
— Boyan Slat (@BoyanSlat) October 24, 2018
Slat posted images on social media of the first contact the barrier had with plastic waste after becoming operational in October.
But in an update this week the team said the challenge of the device not retaining plastic had not been predicted from scale models and prototypes.
A statement on Tuesday said: “Eventually the only way to truly see how the system would perform was to put it in the environment it has been designed for, and this application has been largely effective, since most of the design has withstood the tests of the Pacific, such as its ability to accumulate plastic, reorient with the wind and survivability. For the beta phase of a technology, this is already a success.”
A crew will now perform new tests and collect additional data to explore the root cause of the issue.
— TicToc by Bloomberg (@tictoc) December 18, 2018
A status update on the Ocean Cleanup website explained potential causes to the glitch. It said: “Wilson might be having greater impact on the currents carrying the plastics than initially predicted.
“It looks as though various current effects are resulting from the system’s behaviour in the water. For instance there has been observed a stagnation effect where small patches of plastic are driven around Wilson and accumulate on the exterior of system.”
The plastic barrier with a tapered three-meter-deep ‘skirt’ is intended to act like a coastline, trapping some of the 1.8tn pieces of plastic that scientists estimate are swirling in the patch, while allowing marine life to safely swim beneath it.
Fitted with solar-powered lights, cameras, sensors and satellite antennas, the device is designed to communicate its position at all times, allowing a support vessel to fish out the collected plastic every few months and transport it to dry land for recycling.
Slat said he expects shipping containers filled with fishing nets, plastic bottles, laundry baskets and other plastic trash scooped up by the system to be back on land within a year.