When the Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch nonprofit, first headed to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch last year with a prototype of a giant system designed to clean plastic pollution out of the water, they faced immediate challenges. The device, a huge floating barrier designed to capture plastic using the natural forces of the ocean, wasn’t catching plastic as expected. But after redesigning the system, it’s finally working: the nonprofit announced today that it’s successfully catching plastic.
The newest prototype, which sailed to the middle of the Pacific Ocean in June, is now capturing large pieces of plastic trash—and huge “ghost nets” littered by fishing boats, a major hazard for marine life—along with microplastics as small as 1 millimeter, the team says.
“After beginning this journey seven years ago, this first year of testing in the unforgivable environment of the high seas strongly indicates that our vision is attainable and that the beginning of our mission to rid the ocean of plastic garbage, which has accumulated for decades, is within our sights,” Boyan Slat, the company’s founder, said in a release.
The device still needs more tweaking, the team says, to be able to retain plastic for long periods of time. Another redesign will follow. But the team is now one step closer to the ultimate goal of harvesting plastic from the ocean to bring it back to land, where it can be recycled into new products. It’s critical to stop dumping plastic in the ocean—as much as 12.7 million metric tons ends up in the water each year now. Some detractors have argued that The Ocean Cleanup is a distraction from the bigger need to transition away from single-use plastic like water bottles and plastic forks. But stopping that pollution won’t tackle the problem of the plastic that’s already in the ocean, and that’s the piece that the nonprofit may be able to solve.