The World’s Largest Ocean Cleanup is Underway

  • On the 8th of September 2018, The Ocean Cleanup launched System001: the world’s first ocean cleanup.  The system deployed from The Ocean Cleanup’s assembly yard in the San Francisco Bay and headed for the center of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), the largest of Earth’s 5 major ocean garbage patches, located halfway between Hawaii and California.

    satellite derived bathymetry

    Launching System 001 - September 8 2018. Photo credits to The Ocean Cleanup / Ben Von Wong

    After approximately 40 days of ocean journey including 14 days of trialing, The Ocean Cleanup announced on October 19, that System001 “has reached its intended location and has been deployed into operational configuration; the cleanup has officially begun.”

    satellite derived bathymetry

    System 001 deployed in the GPGP Oct 2018. Photo Credit to The Ocean Cleanup

    In planning the mission for System 001, The Ocean Cleanup knew it was essential to first understand the GPGP in detail.  The organization’s scientists determined the GPGP to cover an estimated surface area of 1.6 million square kilometers, an area twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France.  “To formulate this number, the team of scientists behind this research conducted the most elaborate sampling method ever coordinated. This consisted of a fleet of 30 boats, 652 surface nets and two flights over the patch to gather aerial imagery of the debris.  Sampling at different locations within the same time period allowed a more accurate estimate of the size of the patch and the plastic drifting in it.” Important conclusions of the survey include that 50% of the mass of the GPGP is comprised of “ghost nets” (discarded fishing nets) and microplastics constitute just 8% of the GPGP’s plastic, leaving 92% to be “large plastic” currently.  satellite derived bathymetry

    Modelled mass concentration of plastic in GPGP. Image credit to The Ocean Cleanup

    Dutch inventor and Ocean Cleanup founder Boyan Slat emphasizes the importance of collecting this large plastic now, before it is left to break down in the ocean, “These results show why it’s so important that we are cleaning up this garbage patch in the near future.  Because when you think about it, those 8% of plastic that are already microplastics, they used to be large objects as well, but because of UV lights it breaks down into these smaller and smaller pieces, becoming harder to clean up and magnifying the impact of the problem” (Boyan Slat - The New Picture of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch 2018)  The Ocean Cleanup’s research to better understand the scale of the problem of the GPGP allowed for improvement of the relevant technology.  Once System 001 is installed in the center of the GPGP the Ocean Cleanup crew on board the delivery vessel is prepared to monitor the systems for weeks for its plastic capturing efficiency, effect on marine life, and various other features that can only be observed from the patch.  Full-scale deployment of the System001 is estimated to clean up 50% of GPGP’s in 5 years.