A half-mile-long trash-trapping system named Jenny was sent into the Pacific Ocean to collect waste from one of the biggest accumulations of plastic in the world.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which covers an area twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France, is believed to contain more than 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic — from fishing nets to microplastics — that amount to roughly 88,000 tons. For years, researchers believed it might be impossible to remove this massive collection of debris that floats in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California, posing great danger to the marine environment. However, a non-profit is now proving them wrong, following a successful months-long effort to chip away at the patch.
The beginning of the end of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. pic.twitter.com/JNWIbpYJHa— The Ocean Cleanup (@TheOceanCleanup) October 21, 2021
The Ocean Cleanup, which has been developing a system to help clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, just finished a series of tests that proved that it is, in fact, possible to safely gather plastic from the ocean. According to USA TODAY, the organization's first large-scale cleanup system, System 002 aka Jenny, collected 63,182 pounds of plastic from the ocean over the course of 12 weeks after being sent out in late July to collect waste as part of its testing phase. The mountain of recovered waste — which consists of many items like toothbrushes, VHS tapes, golf balls, toilet seats, shoes, laundry baskets, sleds, and fishing gear — arrived in British Columbia, Canada, this month, with much of it set to be recycled.
According to the organization, Jenny works by two boats slowly guiding a U-shaped barrier through the polluted area. Although the circulating currents in the garbage patch move the plastic around, the system is designed to help guide that plastic into the system's retention zone. Once the system is full, workers empty the plastic on the marine vessel. After they gather as much debris as they can during the excursion, the plastic is taken back to the shore to recycle. Jenny is designed to gather even microplastics — which are just millimeters in size — and be animal friendly, reports CBS News. The system is towed at roughly 1.5 miles per hour, so that marine life can easily swim in, out, and around. It also has quick-release systems, escapes routes, cameras, and lights to help animals escape the netting while crew members simultaneously monitor marine life interactions.
Boyan gives a 'trash tour' of the strangest objects we recovered from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. pic.twitter.com/8VdslbCsmg— The Ocean Cleanup (@TheOceanCleanup) October 26, 2021
"Holy mother of god," Boyan Slat, who founded The Ocean Cleanup in 2013 at the age of 18, tweeted after the organization recovered its massive trash haul on October 8. "It all worked!!! Massive load." In another tweet, the 27-year-old from the Netherlands wrote: "It's exactly 10 years ago that I first learned about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Back then, everyone told me there was no hope of ever cleaning it up. They were right then; no method existed to do it. Proud (and relieved!) to say that now there is."
Marine Parade, reunion with the offshore team, and plastic catch from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch - last week, we celebrated the end of ocean technology testing and the start of the cleanup. pic.twitter.com/f08Y26nXuf— The Ocean Cleanup (@TheOceanCleanup) October 25, 2021
However, Slat said that there's still much to be done as the group can now enter a new phase of cleanup after testing eased some scalability concerns. "The goal wasn’t to maximize catch, otherwise the operation would’ve looked a lot different," he explained. "The primary goal was to collect data, not plastic." In a statement released last week, the organization said it is now using Jenny to clean up the patch while also working on scaling up the design to System 003, "which is expected to be the blueprint designing for scaling to a fleet of systems." That system, they said, is expected to be "three times larger" than the current one.
"While it’s just the tip of the iceberg, these kilograms are the most important ones we will ever collect, because they are proof that cleanup is possible." - Boyan Slat. pic.twitter.com/m0Ba8pz33Z— The Ocean Cleanup (@TheOceanCleanup) October 21, 2021
"While it's just the tip of the iceberg, these kilograms are the most important ones we will ever collect, because they are proof that cleanup is possible," Slat said in the release. "We still have a lot of things to iron out, but one thing we know now is that, with a small fleet of these systems, we can clean this up." The organization hopes to eventually deploy enough cleaning systems to reduce the size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by 50% every five years and to initiate a 90% reduction in floating ocean plastic by 2040.
Funding is one of the many hurdles that lie ahead for The Ocean Cleanup. "Honestly, we can go faster if the resources are available. It's really just a question of money," said Slat. "Last week, seeing the plastic on the ship, seeing all these containers being offloaded, I know it's still a long journey ahead, but... it was quite a relief. It's within the realm of possibility for the first time since the invention of plastic that we can clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch."