Fighting Plastic With Plastic

The Ocean Cleanup's System 001 left San Francisco Bay last Saturday on a titanic mission: reduce the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans by at least 90 percent by 2040.

On September 8, as 30,000 people joined the Rise for Climate March in downtown San Francisco to defend the environment, a 24-year old Dutchman at Pier 41 launched his own environmental defense.

Standing on the top deck of a Blue and Gold Fleet ferry provided for the historic culmination of the five-year project, Boyen Slat described the plan for the day: cruise towards the Bay Bridge to rendezvous with System 001 – affectionately known as “Wilson” – a $23 million, 2,000 foot long, high density plastic floating barrier with a 10 foot polyester skirt attached below, then join the Coast Guard escort behind the Maersk Launcher, a nearly 300 foot long tug boat from Denmark that would tow System 001 out to sea.

Its mission? Scoop up the plastic we can’t seem to stop dumping into the ocean.

“Two things need to happen,” Slat tells the assembled press. “No more plastic needs to enter into the ocean in the first place – that should absolutely be the priority. But, at the same time, the plastic that is in the ocean will not go away by itself. We still find plastic in recognizable shapes dating back to the 1970’s.”

The grand ambition of The Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch non-profit headquartered in Rotterdam but with System 001’s assembly yard in Alameda, has drawn both praise and skepticism. Slat summarizes the three main challenges for System 001: that the system will properly curl into its designed U-shape to gobble up plastic into its skirt “like Pacman”; that the skirt will efficiently capture plastic; and that the system will survive the harsh conditions of the wild Pacific.

“It’s incredibly hard for computers to model all of this,” Slat says. “I’ll be watching most closely at what are the smallest sizes of plastic the system is able to scoop up.”

The press boat meets and follows System 001 through the bay. Lanterns, radar reflectors, navigational signals, GPS, and anti-collision beacons dot its seven football field length, as much protection and evidence-gathering devices as possible for those long weeks alone out in the Pacific.

Although the final destination for System 001 will be the mother lode of our plastic waste – The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic trash about twice the size of Texas halfway between San Francisco and Hawaii – further testing will be done about 240 nautical miles from shore before heading to the Patch.

A final cheer from The Ocean Cleanup crew, and Wilson slips under the Golden Gate Bridge and onto its ultimate clash with the Garbage Patch.

If this all works, System 002, slated for production in Alameda in 2019, will build on the lessons from Wilson.

Ocean Cleanup plans to recycle the captured plastic to further fund their efforts, effectually using the nearly inexhaustible supply of plastic in our oceans against itself.  With our rate of plastic consumption only growing, it might be the most reliable part of the whole cleanup plan.

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