In 2013, Boyan Slat dropped out of college to launch a startup company. His aim was to come up with a way to collect plastic garbage that is choking the oceans. His company, Ocean Cleanup, came up with “System00 1” otherwise known as “Wilson”.
This is a 600 meter long u-shaped plastic machine, designed to trap and retain floating plastic waste to a depth of 3 meters. It has solar-powered lighting, satellite antennas, sensors, and cameras.
Time Magazine named it one of the best inventions of 2015. It was towed out to the eastern area of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in September 2018 for deployment.
Unfortunately, the gadget was a big fail and broke down after a few months. It was towed to Hawaii in January 2019 for repair and modification and, so far, has cost over $20 million to develop and operate.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a floating mass of trash that gets swept into a huge gyre by ocean currents and winds. It consists mostly of plastics – bottles, laundry baskets, carrier bags, discarded toys, and packaging, but the plastic content is mostly microplastics. It is estimated that there are 1.8 trillion individual pieces of the stuff.
Microplastics are of particular concern as they end up in the human food chain. Increasingly, sea fish are ingesting more and more of them. This could have serious health impacts.
Where Did So Much Plastic Come From?
Look in the mirror. That is the source of all the plastics choking the oceans. Companies continue to produce, and we continue to use and toss away, single-use plastic bottles for soft drinks, water and a host of other products. This garbage tends to be disposed of irresponsibly because it often disappears from our immediate view.
William Meyer from Handy Rubbish is concerned that England, and the UK in general, have a growing rubbish crisis that is increasingly being felt across the planet, with the Garbage Patch being only one such example.
Why did Wilson Fail?
So, what went wrong with the revolutionary Wilson? Technically, it seems that the system was successful in some measure, but design flaws and lack of testing meant that it collected the garbage, but instead of retaining it for collection, the garbage flowed straight back out.
Ocean Cleanup attributed this to the effect to Wilson was exerting on the currents around it.
The barrier, with a 3-meter deep “skirt”, is meant to act as a shoreline, trapping the plastics while allowing life to thrive in the lower depths.
However, the system’s behavior in the ocean has been having undesirable effects on the currents carrying the waste. It tends to cause a stagnation in the water, causing plastics to be washed around the system and gather on its surface.
Ocean Cleanup is modifying the scoops of the system to prevent trapped garbage from floating back out. The system’s length and girth are also being modified to work better in ocean currents. There are also other companies working on various ideas to collect and deal with ocean garbage.
Manufacturers are also changing their production operations, with many now using reusable containers and biodegradable materials for packaging. Coca-Cola, the biggest producer of plastic bottles by far, is increasing efforts to recover and reuse or recycle the bottles. In mid-October 2019, the CEO, James Quincey, announced that the company was recovering about 59% of all its bottles in Europe and North America and said plans were underway to increase this to almost 100% globally by 2030.
However, the consumer is the best solution. Reusing what plastics we have instead of tossing them into the river/ocean/garbage is a good place to start. Many people have now gone almost 100% plastic waste free by having their own reusable packages and baskets. Another effective practice is to shop locally, especially when it comes to domestic groceries. This has social, economic and environmental benefits.
When it comes to removing plastics and other garbage from the oceans, the best solution is to stop it from getting there in the first place. Trapping it in rivers before it reaches the sea has the added benefit of cleaning up the rivers themselves.
For instance, the Thames River is now so clean after decades of work that the authorities are considering reintroducing salmon fish to the river and its tributaries. Responsible use and collection of plastics from beaches should be made mandatory in the UK.
Technology is all well and good, but consumers can’t have an out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude. It is not healthy to think, “They’re collecting the garbage so I can keep using it!” Unfortunately, we are human, and one of our worst weaknesses is a tendency towards self-destruction.
When System001 is back in operation, Ocean Cleanup intends to remind users of their role in polluting the oceans by having the trapped garbage collected by ships and brought back to land for disposal every few months.