A new technology to dismantle the largest plastic dump in the Pacific

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During its deployment from San Francisco it looked like a giant sea serpent. But it is a work of engineering designed to reduce in half to half the enormous oceanic plastic spillway called Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The project, developed by the Dutch foundation The Ocean Cleanup for the last five years, is already in its operational phase. The work consists of a barrier formed by a floating tube of 600 meters long, which will create a kind of U to trap the waste thanks to the push of wind and waves. A pac-man of the seas, according to those responsible for the project.

The plastic will be collected with boats and moved to the coast for recycling, they plan. But part of the scientific community raises doubts about the effectiveness of the operation, which has cost more than 20 million dollars, and the possible risks to marine fauna. The tests, which began this Saturday before deploying the operation, will be essential to find out.

It all started in 2013 on the initiative of Boyan Stan, a Dutchman who was then 18 years old. This young man was shocked by the amount of waste that was when he was going to dive and went to work to find solutions to the problem, as shown on the website of The Ocean Cleanup. Stan wanted to create a viable method of concentration and collection of marine litter and launched the organization to develop new technologies. A little over a year later, a hundred volunteer scientists had joined the project and almost 2.2 million dollars of funding were collected with a crowfunding campaign.

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Researchers attached to the initiative carried out various studies of the area affected by the plastic dump. A few months ago, the main results of his observations came out in Scientific Reports. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has reached an area of ​​1.6 million square kilometers, according to estimates. There already accumulate 1.8 billion plastic waste, calculates the foundation. 80,000 tons. "A significant percentage of plastics are trapped in eddies created by ocean currents," explains The Ocean Cleanup. "Once stuck there, the plastic melts and becomes a trap for the marine fauna, deceived by the appearance of food," he adds.

For the organization, trying to collect all that trash with boats and networks would be too expensive and would generate impactful emissions for the environment and damage to marine fauna. In the opinion of The Ocean Cleanup, a method of concentration of "passive" waste, which moves at the same time as currents, is more viable. This explains the idea of ​​using a floating barrier, called System 001: a tube with a curtain of three meters deep that allows to capture the plastic and at the same time leaves free passage to the fish below it.

The Ocean Cleanup has already launched the operational phase of its project. The tube was deployed with a ship from the port of San Francisco to an intermediate area with respect to the Great Pacific Garbage Path, located 240 nautical miles from the coast. A two-week test period is scheduled there to determine the effectiveness of the system. If everything goes as planned, the engineering work will be transferred directly to the landfill area.

The doubts of the scientists

There remain some doubts about the viability of this technology. Some oceanographers have expressed concern about the possibility that the system could harm marine animals. "In the superficial part of the sea there are all kinds of organisms," says Jesús Gago of the Spanish Institute of Oceanography. "The presented scheme seems to be dragging everything. There may be that risk [of damage to the marine fauna]. With tests comes the test of fire, "he adds.

Another criticism is about the economic viability of this technological deployment. "Boyan's proposal is very meritorious. He is a person with initiative, and what he has done is impressive. But the message that you have to invest millions to get plastics out of the middle of the ocean leaves me more skeptical, "says Gago. In his opinion, we must not forget the importance of prevention to avoid the impact of plastic pollution. Such important money figures could be used "to prevent the plastic from reaching the ocean, instead of going fishing in remote places," he believes.

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The foundation explains that the tests will serve to clarify those critical aspects of the project on which prototypes and previous experiments have not been able to clear all doubts. Among them, the response of the system to movements caused by wind and currents, the ability to concentrate and retain the captured plastic and the resistance to disruptive elements of the ocean such as waves and corrosion caused by salt, will be evaluated, he argues. He also states that different organizations, such as the University of Miami and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have offered advice to ensure that the floating barrier does not generate negative impacts for marine fauna.

Currently they have begun testing to test the system, according to The Ocean Cleanup. The route can be monitored at any time on the foundation's website, thanks to a GPS tracking system installed on the tube. The Great Pacific Garbage Path is about 1,000 miles further. Engineers at The Ocean Cleanup have predicted that the new waste collection system will take two or three weeks to reach the landfill after the testing period.

The following phases of the project foresee that "every few months" a ship will approach the garbage dump and collect the concentrated waste. The Ocean Cleanup is studying ways to recycle all the recovered plastic and economically sustain the process of cleaning the waters with the sale of products collected from that material. Gago believes that this mission will have its difficulties. "They are materials affected by sun exposure and sea water. I am not sure that this material can be used in a recycling plant in a simple way, "he says. The foundation plans to develop up to 60 similar systems to this to extend cleaning operations to four other oceanic plastic dumps.

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