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The massive ocean cleanup device invented by a 24-year-old is running into problems in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Business Insider logoBusiness Insider 2018-12-06 Peter Kotecki
a group of people in a boat on a body of water © The Ocean Cleanup
  • More than 320 million metric tons of plastic are produced every year. Much of it accumulates in oceans, forming places like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
  • The Ocean Cleanup, founded by Dutch innovator Boyan Slat, is trying to clean up plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
  • Slat's organization recently deployed a 2,000-foot-long plastic cleaning array to the garbage patch, but the team observed that some plastic has been escaping the device.
  • Plastic could be leaving the device because the contraption is moving too slowly. Slat said he is optimistic about finding a solution soon.

The Ocean Cleanup, founded by a 24-year-old Dutch innovator named Boyan Slat, has run into some problems in the first month of deploying its massive plastic cleaning array.

Slat's 2,000-foot-long device, System 001, recently spent four weeks in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where the organization hopes to collect 50 tons of plastic within one year. For the most part, the system has worked as expected and the team has not seen any harm to marine animals, Slat wrote in a November 20 post on the organization's website.

However, plastic is leaving the device after initially being collected. The team expected surprises, he said, adding that The Ocean Cleanup is working on fixing the issue.

"Although we are not harvesting plastic yet, based on the current results, we are positive we are close to making it work," Slat wrote.

Plastic could be leaving the device for various reasons.

Slat said the system could be moving too slowly to catch plastic. In addition, vibrations at either end of the U-shaped device could be pushing plastic away when it comes close to the mouth of the contraption.

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To address the difference in speed between the plastic and the device, Slat said his team will make the U-shape opening wider. This should also reduce the vibrations, he said.

Plastic is entering oceans in increasing amounts, and scientists expect it to outweigh all fish in oceans by 2050. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which Slat's group is targeting, is a swirling vortex more than three times the size of Spain.

Read more: A massive collection of garbage in the Pacific Ocean keeps growing

Garbage in oceans is killing marine life and destroying ecosystems that people rely on to live. Our food supply is affected too, as people eat fish that have absorbed chemicals from plastic.

Several experts have expressed concerns about Slat's device, saying it's unlikely to be effective and could cause more harm than benefit.

Slat defended his device in a previous interview with Business Insider, saying every new technology has been met with pessimistic reactions. His team launched its device for the first time in September, towing the device through the San Francisco Bay for a test in the ocean.

"There will always be people saying things can't be done," Slat said. "And history shows that time and time again things 'couldn't be done' and they were done ... I think asking questions is very valid, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't do it."

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