The ocean holds hundreds of millions of tons of plastic, and none of it is going anywhere anytime soon. That’s especially true now that the only major project to clean up the oceans has failed. It turns out a test project launched three months ago designed to collect ocean trash .
In early September, a ship headed to an area of the Pacific Ocean known as the Pacific Garbage Patch—a region where all the trash dumped in the Pacific ends up. If anyone is going to clean up the ocean, it makes sense to start there, and the startup called Ocean Cleanup headed there with a new invention in tow.
The idea they developed was to use a long floating boom to collect ocean garbage. In theory, the design is simple: The boom floats on top of the waves in a U shape while trash passively drifts in. The wind and waves push the boom faster than the floating trash, so over time the trash gets trapped in the middle.
At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. After a few months of testing in the garbage patch, however, it’s clear the boom doesn’t actually work like that. For some reason, the trash collected by the boom doesn’t stay there, instead drifting out of the trapped area. The group's engineers aren’t sure exactly why this is happening.
It’s possible that the underlying assumption of the entire device is wrong. Perhaps the boom doesn’t get pushed faster by the water and wind, so it never has a chance to collect plastic. Another possibility is that the boom is too short, and vibrations at the ends push trash away. Either way, the easiest correction is to make the boom longer, and with luck, that will fix the problem.
If it doesn’t, though, we might have to start back at the beginning to fix the ocean’s trash problem. And with the amount of trash already present—along with the amount of trash we’re adding daily—the ocean might not be able to wait.