Giant plastic trap sets out again on great ocean cleanup

A floating boom that aims to trap some of the 1.8 trillion items of plastic in the Pacific Ocean has been put to sea for a second time.

The new device is being towed into an area between California and Hawaii to start collecting the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a huge and dispersed mass of trash, while avoiding harm to marine life.

First attempts late last year saw the 600-metre boom, nicknamed Wilson, break apart. The U-shaped barrier was towed out from San Francisco in September to trap the plastic and operated for four months.

But it struggled to retain the plastic it caught, and it eventually broke under pressure from waves and wind with 262 feet of the structure detached and floating freely nearby.

The new boom named System 001/B (no nickname as yet) is a smaller version of the first design by Boyan Slat, creator of the Ocean Cleanup project.

Stress break

After four months of repair and modification the boom is about a quarter the size of Wilson, and the Ocean Cleanup team have resolved the cause of the stress break that ended operations last time.

The boom is designed for ease of speed, with new mechanisms to make it more responsive to conditions, moving faster or slower to collect and retain trash.

The last version was designed to take advantage of wind, waves, and currents to catch plastic but kept losing what it snared because it was moving too slowly through the ocean current. At the same time, smaller and faster items of plastic would float away before they could be trapped.

Boyan Slat said in a tweet:

“Hopefully nature doesn’t have too many surprises in store for us this time. Either way, we’re set to learn a lot from this campaign.”

He hopes one day to deploy 60 of the devices to skim plastic debris off the surface of the ocean.

Satellite antennas

The modified boom has solar-powered lights, cameras, sensors and satellite antennas to communicate its position at all times. Every few months a support vessel will collect the plastic and transport it to dry land.

The barrier, which is itself plastic, has a tapered three-metre deep screen that acts a bit like a coastline, trapping some of the pieces of plastic swirling in the patch while allowing marine life to safely swim beneath.

Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The patch is growing – humans dump more than eight million tons of trash into the ocean each year — the equivalent of one dump truck full of plastic every minute.

Garbage patches are large areas of the ocean where litter, fishing gear, and other marine debris collects, being pulled in by rotating ocean currents called “gyres”, a bit like giant whirlpools.

There are five gyres – one in the Indian Ocean, two in the Atlantic Ocean, and two in the Pacific Ocean. Garbage patches of varying sizes are located in each gyre.

The debris is spread across the surface and down to the ocean floor. The debris ranges in size, from large abandoned fishing nets to tiny microplastics, smaller than 5mm. This makes it possible to sail through some areas of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and see very little or no debris.

Ghost nets

Garbage patches can impact the ecosystem in a number of ways. Marine life is caught, injured, or killed, for example by lost fishing nets. These ghost nets continue to fish even though they are no longer under control and can trap or wrap around animals, entangling them.

Also, plastic debris with loops such as packing straps, six-pack rings and handles of plastic bags, can hook onto and harm wildlife.

Fish, seabirds, and other marine animals also ingest plastic and other debris, which take up room in their stomachs, making the animals feel full and stopping them from eating real food.

Marine debris can also transport potentially invasive species like algae, barnacles, crabs, or other species to environments where they can outcompete or overcrowd native species, disrupting the ecosystem.

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