The Pacific Ocean is home to a massive collection of floating trash twice the size of Texas called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. How to address this ever-expanding accumulation of trash and debris has long stumped scientists, but a new approach from the non-profit The Ocean Cleanup is showing promising results. During testing, the organization reported that the half-mile installation pulled a whopping 20,000 pounds of plastic from the ocean.
The majority of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn’t a solid raft of floating trash, but rather tiny pieces of plastic suspended in seawater. The plastics, which usually range from plastic bottles to pieces of trash smaller than a grain of rice, are suspended in the upper water column. The low-density mass of trash is invisible to satellites, and could even be missed by casual boaters or divers, reports Li Cohen for CBS News. The patch covers an estimated 1.6 million square kilometers—roughly three times the size of France—and currently floats between Hawaiʻi and California.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly expanding as rotating currents called gyres pull more and more trash into the area. In each of the ocean’s five gyres—one in the Indian, two in the Atlantic, and two in the Pacific—have accumulated their own garbage piles of varying size, with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch being the largest and most well-known.
The Ocean Cleanup, which has the goal of removing 90 percent of floating ocean plastic by 2040, has been developing and testing multiple trash-cleanup prototypes for years with limited success. Their 2018 model broke in the water, and their 2019 version lacked the trash-collecting efficiency needed to make a meaningful dent in the problem. Their newest U-shaped net system, nicknamed “Jenny,” is their most successful iteration yet.
Guided by two boats, the half-mile-long installation works by catching large and small debris from the seawater in a funnel-shaped net. Once Jenny is full of trash, workers empty the plastic onto the boat before taking it ashore to recycle.
However, the technique is quite similar to trawl fishing, reports Earther's Molly Taft. One concern scientists had about the installation was the risk of accidentally ensnaring fish or other marine life in the collection net, but The Ocean Cleanup says slow-moving Jenny is animal friendly. The boats tow Jenny at roughly 1.5 knots, a speed at which most marine life can swim away, and the system has escape routes and lights to guide disoriented animals out of the netting.
“They spent I don’t know how many tens of millions of dollars to invent fishing,” Miriam Goldstein, the Center for American Progress's ocean policy director, who has a Ph.D. in biological oceanography, tells Earther. Goldsteing adds that the system is essentially “a net dragged between two boats. We have a name for a net dragged between two boats, and that’s trawl fishing."
Critics also note the large carbon footprint of the type of boats, called Maersk ships, used to drag the large net, per Earther. The Ocean Collective has previously said they plan to purchase carbon offsets to rectify this concern.
In Jenny’s final test run, the team found the system scooped 19,841 pounds of debris from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Removing 20,000 pounds of trash is a feat, but only addresses a small piece of the problem. A 2018 study estimated that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains roughly 79,000 tons of plastic. The cleanup installation showed promising results, but most researchers agree efforts should also be put toward preventing plastic from entering the ocean in the first place. A 2020 study found that more than 24 billion pounds (11 million metric tons) of plastic are being dumped into oceans each year, a figure that could nearly triple by 2040. Installations like Jenny also do little to address the substantial accumulation of plastics on the ocean floor, reports Aria Bendix for Business Insider.
Despite the scale of the problem, the nonprofit’s founder, Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, says they would need about ten Jennys to clean up half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in five years.