SAN FRANCISCO – Eleven weeks after it was first placed in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to begin gobbling up plastic trash, The Ocean Cleanup system is being towed to Hawaii after a 60-foot piece broke off.
While the Dutch-based non-profit that created the system had hoped for better, it’s not surprised that problems have popped up.
“Secretly, we were hoping on Day One it would be deployed and in one go, magically, it would work as planned. But realistically we’d been planning that we’d need to take it in and out multiple times,” Boyan Slat, the project’s creator and 24-year-old CEO, told USA TODAY Thursday.
“This is all part of developing pioneering technology in very challenging conditions,” he said by phone from Rotterdam in the Netherlands, where the organization is headquartered.
Towing of the system – dubbed “Wilson” after Tom Hanks’ volleyball companion in the movie “Castaway” – began Wednesday. It’s headed for Oahu, where engineers will investigate what went wrong.
“Considering the structural malfunction, we figured it would be safer to go to the closest port,” which was in Hawaii, Slat said.
The Ocean Cleanup is a passive system involving a 2,000-foot floating series of connected 4-foot in diameter pipes that make up a boom which forms a giant horseshoe at the surface of the ocean. Below that hangs a 9-foot skirt that corrals the tiny pieces of plastic trash that float in the water. The action of the currents and waves is meant to push trash into the system’s center while the micro-plastic, as it’s called, is captured by the hanging barrier.
It’s unclear whether the system will be fixed in Hawaii, which is 800 miles from the site where it was deployed, or if it will be towed back to San Francisco Bay, where it was built.
“We may consider putting it on a barge and bringing it to San Francisco,” Slat said.
The problem was discovered on Dec. 29 when the boat that oversees what The Ocean Cleanup calls System 001 was doing a routine inspection. One of the pipes used to make the boom had broken and floated free. The pipes are 3 inches thick and made from high-density polyethylene, which is often used for making water pipes.
“They noticed that this end section was free floating and had detached from the rest of the structure. I imagine they were quite surprised,” Slat said.
The section hadn’t gotten far. It was floating several dozen yards from the main system, Slat said.
The 60-foot long piece of pipe couldn’t have gotten lost because it has GPS sensors on it. It’s also buoyant and contains air chambers, so it couldn’t sink, he said.
The Ocean Cleanup’s engineers believe structural fatigue caused by the constant motion of the sea and the slight bending of the pipe likely caused the break, though they won’t know for certain until they get it to port and can do a full examination.
“It’s like bending a paperclip back and forth, eventually the metal breaks,” Slat said.
The system had also had a problem with retaining the plastic it corralled, some of which floated out again. Engineers will work on both that problem and the issue of fatigue while the system is in dry dock.
“We’ll be making upgrades and then take it out again as soon as possible,” Slat said.
The system was towed out to sea from its building berth on San Francisco Bay on Sept. 8, 2018, and first deployed about 240 nautical miles offshore where it was tested for two weeks. It was then towed to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch nearly 1,400 miles off the West Coast, about halfway between California and Hawaii.
Eventually, the non-profit hopes to deploy as many as 60 of the devices into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a 600,000 square mile area where ocean currents cause floating plastic trash to concentrate. The patch is not a solid mass of plastic. It includes about 1.8 trillion pieces and weighs 88,000 tons – the equivalent of 500 jumbo jets.
So far the crew has taken up 4,500 pounds of plastic, mostly in the form of discarded commercial fishing nets. That will be returned to port to be recycled. About half of the plastic the crew has sighted in the Garbage Patch consists of these, known as “ghost nets,” which can entangle and entrap sea life, sometimes killing them.
Slat said that Wilson is still in beta mode, so this isn’t a failure.
“It’s a bump on the road to getting it to work,” he said.
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