On a train from Vancouver to Montreal are 60 tons of empty drinking bottles, laundry detergent containers, plastic bags, nettings and other abandoned vessels and tools that now presume the role of discards. To the naked eye, it merely looks like a bunch of washed-up trash, but without exaggeration, it’s probably the most important trash the world has ever seen.
This heavy load of plastics is just one of many that nonprofit organization The Ocean Cleanup has planned to fish out of the North Pacific Ocean and ship across the world for recycling in an ongoing effort to clear what is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Also called the Pacific Trash Vortex, it’s exactly as the name implies—a giant patch of garbage in the sea. Only it’s not some dense island of plastic debris. Rather, it’s a broad zone of accumulation where trash remains floating indefinitely.
“We find dated objects that go back to the 1960s; if it’s dated, it’s big enough to have a date stamp on it,” Joost Dubois, Director of Communications at The Ocean Clean up, explained. “There is also a lot of stuff so small that you can’t even recognize where it came from.”
So, how do you tackle a problem this big?
The nonprofit’s initial idea was to anchor a 62-mile fixed barrier to the seabed, which would use the ocean’s vortex circulation to bring the trash in. That could work, but after several calculations by The Ocean Cleanup’s extensive computer models, the organization realized the process would take too long. Next, they had the idea to break it down into multiple smaller systems that would drift around freely, using the wind and currents.
“Purely autonomous systems,” Dubois called them. “We got that idea to work but then we got to calculating how many we’d need to clean the entire North Pacific, and that would be hundreds of systems, which would becomea little crowded and also very expensive.”
It was also inefficient; to concentrate the floating trash and collect it, they’d need to maintain a stable speed difference between the plastic debris and the capturing system.
The solution, the team realized, would involve a lot more manpower. This eventually led them to a system they call Jenny—a half-mile-long floating barrier that crew members tow through the water.
This U-shaped floating system is made from large fenders with netting and various sizes of mesh connected between them creating a screen that extends about 10 feet underwater.
“It’s completely open at the bottom, which is important because it allows fish to escape,” Ocean Operations Manager Glen Kissack explained.
Jenny is connected at each end to two supply vessels, which move ahead at a very slow speed—about 1.5 knots. As the system moves across the water, it creates a natural flow that carries plastic along its two barriers (also known as wings) and transports it to the center of the U-shape called the retention zone. After about a week of this process, The Ocean Cleanup crews bring the two vessels together, handing both sides of Jenny to one vessel while the other ship goes around the back of the system and picks up the retention zone with a crane.
“We’re always looking for strange objects. We’ve caught two fridges, car wheels—it’s amazing what is drifting out there,” Dubois explained. “Part of this is coming from stuff you don’t want to remember, like tsunamis, but a lot of this is just household goods.”
For six weeks at a time, the nonprofit’s partner organization, Maersk, sends crews of about 15 workers out to the patch to collect as much trash as possible. The payout isn’t the same every trip, but since the latest campaign started in June 2021, the group has collected 60 tons of plastic. The amount brought in is significant since the operation and technology is in a validation phase. Proving that the method works is key before The Ocean Cleanup can secure investors and begin to move forward with their ultimate goal to remove 90 percent of all floating trash in the world’s oceans by 2040.
“The working system we currently have in the ocean is still sort of a prototype, which is one third the size of what we think we are going to eventually need,” Dubois explained. “And it’s not just one system. For the North Pacific project we are going to need 10 systems.”
Cleaning up the ocean directly, however, is only half the battle.
“Our computer models indicated that if you are just taking plastic out, you will never be done; you will be the garbage men of the ocean because the influx is growing exponentially,” Dubois explained. “So, we started looking into where it is coming from.”
The answer: rivers. The Ocean Cleanup team conducted an investigation for more than two years and found that there are nearly 100,000 rivers around the world, and that if they can manage the influx from 1,000 of them, they can reduce the trash flow by 80 percent.
“Our models show that by 2040, we can remove 90 percent of the floating trash in our oceans,” Dubois said.
Since 2016, The Ocean Cleanup has been developing a river-cleaning system called the Interceptor and placing it in various rivers around the world, including in Malaysia, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Vietnam, Indonesia and soon California and Thailand.
Its design is comprised of two different vessels—a catamaran, and inside of it, a barge. A large open face at one end of the vessel allows for a large conveyor belt to dip out into the ocean, which is used to drag floating trash into its body where additional conveyor belts move incoming debris into various containers evenly distributed across the inner barge. The conveyor belt is powered by solar panels that cover the hardtop of the catamaran. The electric engine that the panels power sticks about three feet underwater on the bow of the vessel.
Once the Interceptor is anchored in its designated location, workers will take their own small vessels back to land.
“It’s autonomous,” Dubois explained. “But it will need someone to go on there from time to time. It gives a signal [a text message] that the dumpsters are full, and someone needs to go and pick up the dumpsters and turn off the conveyor belt.”
Placing an Interceptor in each of the 1,000 rivers will take another six to seven years. To help reach that day, the team has been working to establish several means of funding through partnerships, donations, and making/selling unique items out of garbage collected from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Sunglasses made almost entirely from the captured plastic (save for the lenses) sold out at $299 a pair. Now, the company is looking for new ways that existing brands can partner with The Ocean Cleanup to use the trash and trademark to create other products.