- Boyan Slat, a 24-year-old entrepreneur, has set out to rid the world's oceans of harmful plastics, which can damage the environment, endanger local economies, and kill marine life.
- At 18 years old, Slat launched The Ocean Cleanup, an organization focused on clearing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a trash-filled vortex more than twice the size of Texas.
- The organization's 2,000-foot-long cleanup tool was recently deployed in the Pacific Ocean, but it soon began spilling the plastic it had collected.
- The Ocean Cleanup said it has finally figured out what went wrong in an update released on March 29, and, despite critics' doubts, confirmed the organization will be ready to relaunch its cleanup tool "within a matter of months."
Our oceans are teeming with plastic, and the problem is getting worse by the day.
On average, 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean every year, though the maximum amount could be closer to 12.7 million metric tons. That's equivalent to the weight of 2 million elephants. The amount of plastic in the ocean could triple in the next decade, posing serious danger to marine ecosystems and the communities that are economically dependent on them.
Nowhere is this crisis more visible than in the Pacific Ocean - the location of a trash-filled vortex that's more than twice the size of Texas. The widening gyre, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, 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.
In 2013, the entrepreneur Boyan Slat, who was 18 years old at the time, set out to tackle this problem by launching The Ocean Cleanup, an organization dedicated to ridding the ocean of plastic waste. The group's signature technology, a 2,000-foot-long cleanup device known as "Wilson" (named after Tom Hanks' volleyball companion in the movie "Castaway"), was deployed five years later in the Pacific Ocean - but it recently ran into some major issues and had to return to shore.
Now the organization has shared what it thinks went wrong.
Slat, a Dutch innovator, came up with the concept for Wilson at age 16 and has been refining the idea ever since. In May 2017, The Ocean Cleanup raised $21.7 million for trials in the Pacific Ocean.
A little over a year later, Slat's team set out to sea with its first 2,000-foot-long plastic-cleaning array, officially called System 001.
The plastic-cleaning array had a cascading series of problems, then broke
But it seems the technology may have left the harbor a bit prematurely.
Wilson is composed of linked sections of large, durable floating plastic pipes, with a 10-foot barrier underneath to trap debris. The cleaning array is pulled into a "U" shape and held in place with underwater "anchors" that drift about 2,000 feet beneath the surface. In concept, the array is supposed to be able to move faster than the garbage patch's outwardly drifting plastic, catching large quantities inside the "U."
A ship called the Maersk Launcher tugged System 001 from the San Francisco Bay to a final testing site more than 200 miles offshore. Then, after final testing, the array was dragged another 1,200 nautical miles to the garbage patch's location.
System 001 cost about $23 million to make.
Starting in October 2018, Wilson was supposed to begin harvesting plastic from the garbage patch. But plastic began leaking out of the array, and after eight weeks of work, The Ocean Cleanup team was unable to staunch the flow of debris back into the ocean.
Finally, in December, a 59-foot end section broke off from the array, forcing the organization to tow Wilson back to land for repairs.
It turns out Wilson was too slow to catch the drifting plastic
The Ocean Cleanup previously said that 60 of these arrays would be able to remove half of the trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch over the course of five years. But Wilson's initial challenges casts doubt on that claim.
For the past two months, the organization has tried to figure out what went wrong during the initial launch, and it finally has some answers.
Researchers found that the drifting plastic moved faster than anticipated, which meant the system was too slow to keep the plastic it caught from flowing out of the array and back into the ocean.
A design and manufacturing flaw was responsible for the 59-foot section breaking off. An initial crack originated at a gap between the plastic pipe and the screen that catches the debris. It then spread outward, creating a fracture in the array.
In a recent update, the organization said it hopes to resolve these issues and prove its technology, but it acknowledged that "there may still be more unidentified challenges ahead."
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch cleanup will continue
Rather than relaunching the device from Hawaii, where it malfunctioned, The Ocean Cleanup decided it would be cheaper to return to its home base in the San Francisco Bay and reassess the situation. The organization said it'll be "a matter of months" before it relaunches the new and improved technology.
Though the first attempt to launch an array didn't quite go according to plan, there were some promising signs. The device maintained its "U" shape, which funnels debris to the center of the system despite wind and waves. The team was also able to bring back more than 4,400 pounds of plastic.
What's more, there was no observable damage to the environment - something that scientists were concerned about before the launch.
Slat defended his device in a previous interview with Business Insider, saying that every new technology is met with some skepticism. Slat believes his array could be humanity's shot at removing plastic from the garbage patch itself. No one else is trying something on the same scale.
"If we do fail, I think there would be a risk that [a gyre cleanup] will not happen for a very long time," he said.