The massive plastic-cleaning device in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch probably won't hurt sea creatures - but there's still a big problem to sort out
- 24-year-old Boyan Slat is on a mission to rid the world's oceans of harmful amounts of plastic.
- The young entrepreneur's organization, The Ocean Cleanup, has developed a tool to remove plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a trash-filled vortex that's more than twice the size of Texas.
- Environmentalists predicted that the tool would endanger marine life, but a recent analysis from The Ocean Cleanup found that animals have been ignoring the device.
- That still leaves the organization with a major problem: getting its tool to work.
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When 24-year-old Boyan Slat set out to rid the world's oceans of plastic, part of his mission was to protect animals from being poisoned by human garbage.
In 2013, Slat's organization, The Ocean Cleanup, began researching ways to clean the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a trash-filled vortex in the Pacific Ocean that's more than twice the size of Texas. The widening gyre is said to contain more than 1.8 trillion pieces of floating plastic, or the equivalent of 250 pieces of debris for every person on Earth.To tackle this problem, Slat and his organization developed a 2,000-foot-long U-shaped device called "Wilson," which uses the ocean's current to gather plastic from the water.
Environmentalists soon argued that the solution would do more harm than good. When shark researcher David Shiffman surveyed 15 ocean plastic pollution experts, every one of them said that Wilson would "probably or definitely kill" marine life, which could become caught in the array.
The Ocean Cleanup conducted its own research and found that the device posed little risk to animals, except for sea turtles, which showed a "medium risk" of feeding on plastic. But they took the environmentalists' concerns to heart.
Since launching Wilson in September 2018, the organization has monitored the behavior of species such as birds, sea turtles, fish, plankton, and marine mammals using drones and underwater robots. After studying these species for more than 1,000 hours, The Ocean Cleanup found "no critical interaction" between the animals and the plastic-collecting device.
While animals did swim underneath or fly above Wilson, they never got close enough to become trapped inside. Instead, they lingered in the area for minutes (or days in the case of birds), before moving on to another part of the ocean.
Animals that appeared in the area over the course of 141 days included humpback whales, California sea lions, and various types of birds and fish.
In a blog post, The Ocean Cleanup said their findings gave them "greater confidence" that Wilson wouldn't harm marine life.
With one crisis averted, the organization still faces another: the fact that the device hasn't exactly worked as planned.
More than eight weeks after Wilson was deployed in the Pacific Ocean, it began spilling the plastic it had collected back into the water. Researchers later traced the problem to a design and manufacturing flaw that created a crack at the bottom of the pipe, which eventually widened into fracture. The Ocean Cleanup was forced to return Wilson to its home base in the San Francisco Bay for further testing.
During this time, the organization confirmed that the system wasn't moving at the proper speed to retain plastic. "The key is consistency," they wrote in a blog post. "The system must always go faster than the plastic or always go slower than the plastic."The group is now experimenting with inflatable buoys that tow Wilson along the water, as well as a sea anchor that helps the device move at a slower speed. Wilson is expected to return to the garbage patch later this month.
All the while, plastic pollution continues to accumulate in the water. By 2050, scientists expect the amount of plastic in the world's oceans to outweigh all fish.