Ocean Cleanup Hits Snag, in for Repair

Courtesy OceanCleanup    A diagram from Ocean Cleanup, bottom, seems to indicate that the point of fracture occurred on the portion of their apparatus shown directly above. The photo was taken prior to launch at Alameda Point.

Ocean Cleanup (OC) announced on New Year’s Eve that it has shut down its experiment to collect debris from the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” (GPGP) — a  mass of refuse and debris known as a gyre. OC said that “structural malfunctioning of the cleanup system” has forced the company to return to Alameda earlier than planned.

“We will set sail as soon as an appropriate weather window is available,” OC stated.

OC, a Dutch nonprofit, designed a system to help clean up the gyre. Last February the city announced that OC was going to put its 2,000-foot-long system together at Alameda Point (“Cleanup Project Finds Home at Point,” Feb. 20, 2018). The company got to work in March. 

On Aug. 31, 2018, (OC) finished the five-month-long task of assembling “System 001,” which the company has dubbed “Wilson” (“Ocean Cleanup Set to Launch,” Sept. 4, 2018). The company transferred the system from Seaplane Lagoon to the offshore supply ship Maersk Launcher. On Sept. 9, 2018, OC sent the Launcher, with “System 001” out the Golden Gate on its way to tackle GPGP — the largest of the five offshore plastic accumulation zones in the world’s oceans.  

The company planned to sweep concentrated plastic from GPGP and sell the debris to recyclers. OC would use the money it receives to clean up more gyres. The task was not as simple as it sounded. OC faced a challenge more complicated than simply vacuuming a garbage patch floating on the top of Pacific Ocean waters. 

Calling this accumulation of debris a “garbage patch” does not accurately describe what awaited OC. According to the United States Department of Commerce’s National Ocean Service (NOS), GPGP is not a large and continuous patch of easily visible marine debris such as bottles and other litter and is not akin to a literal island of trash that should be visible with satellite or aerial photographs.

From the outset, OC has experienced problems with retaining the plastic it had collected. Four weeks into the experiment, OC announced that it was not collecting any plastic. “We have observed that plastic is exiting the system once it is collected, (and) are currently working on causes and solutions to remedy this,” OC stated in an online update. 

OC pointed to the system’s lack of proper speed while collecting plastic. “It appears that the system occasionally travels slower than the plastic, which provides caught plastic with the opportunity to leave the system again,” OC stated. An attempt to increase “Wilson’s” speed proved fruitless, OC reported on Dec. 18. “We have observed plastic collecting within (and around) the system but then it drifts away.” 

On Saturday, Dec. 29, a regular inspection of the cleanup system revealed that a 59-foot-long end-section had detached from “Wilson.” OC pointed to material fatigue that had fractured the system’s floater. Two days later, OC decided to return to Alameda. 

OC has not given up, however. “We will continue testing and monitoring the system until we feel confident to make any modifications,” OC told its online followers. “We are confident these tests will teach us more about the current status of Wilson, which will hopefully allow us to soon make the cleanup system fully operational.”