Plastic is a menace that does not stop at clogging the drains and sewage pipes of metropolises, but overflows and spills into oceans, endangering marine life. Plastic pollution of the oceans has escalated to such a point that there in a huge patch of garbage in the Pacific Ocean more than twice the size of Texas.
A mass of garbage this size might seem unimaginable, but it certainly exists, and has been dubbed the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch", also called "Pacific trash vortex" sometimes.
This garbage patch is not dense like an island, but the patch has a low density (4 particles per cubic meter) which prevents detection by satellite imagery, or even by casual boaters or divers in the area. An estimated 80,000 metric tons of plastic inhabit the patch. It has a couple of large pieces. The Pacific Ocean currents have created three 'islands' of debris in this patch.
What can be done to clean up this mess? A 25 year old Dutch entrepreneur named Boyan Slat began developing a system to rid the world's oceans of harmful plastic. In 2013, he founded a nonprofit called The
Ocean Cleanup that aims to remove plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The group designed a device that passively collects plastic in its fold like a giant arm.
Their system faced some unforeseen trouble, as some plastic were seen to spill back into the ocean, or flowing over the top of a cork line that helps stabilize the system. But they recently announced the problems had been fixed and the fully functional device is now capturing and retaining plastic debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
So far, the team has collected large fishing nets, plastic objects like cartons and crates, and microplastics as small as 1 millimeter in length, they said.
Laurent Lebreton, one of the organization's researchers, previously told Business Insider that a lot of the debris the device was catching "is really weathered and broken down, and some of it looks really old."
"We don't really find any plastic bags or straws, but we find really thick, hard plastic fragments," he added.
This device can retain various types of plastic with the help of a new parachute system that debuted in June. The Ocean Cleanup's U-shaped plastic catching system passively collects trash by using the ocean's own current. Basically, it creates an artificial coastline in deep water.
The most visible part of this device is a 2,000-foot pipe made of high-density polyethylene plastic. It is connected to a screen that extends to about 10 feet below the surface and catches plastic debris.
In June, The Ocean Cleanup launched a new version of the device and added a parachute anchor. It is now working optimally, according to the group.
"This now gives us sufficient confidence in the general concept," Slat said in a press conference.
This device is not the end, though. The organization plans to build a fleet of these plastic-cleaning arrays. Slat told Business Insider in September that he planned to build a larger version of the system next year that could capture more plastic, though his team was still trying to determine what the precise size should be.
The group thinks a ship could visit the garbage patch every few months and tow the debris that the array catches to shore. But right now, their own staff removes the plastic the device catches from the water by hand, using nets. So to achieve its ultimate goal of capturing up to 15,000 tons of plastic per year, the organization would have to consider more advanced ways to transfer plastic to a ship.