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New Device Collects Tons of Debris from Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Great Pacific Garbage Patch
A new mechanism is now being used to gather floating debris that is part of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Credit: The Ocean Cleanup

A new type of net, dubbed “Jenny,” is pulling 20,000 pounds of plastic from the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” courtesy of its creator, Boyan Slat from Holland, and his organization, called The Ocean Cleanup.

The Patch is not really as dense or solid as it might sound. It’s really a vast area two times the size of Texas between Hawai’i and California on which plastics are floating around a gyre, in the middle of currents which rotate continuously. Another, smaller gyre in the Pacific is home to yet another patch of plastic debris.

Although the problem is huge, and caused by many different countries, Slat is focusing on how he can make a difference in ridding the world’s largest ocean of this massive amount of floating detritus — one netful at a time, pulled behind two large ships.

Great Pacific Garbage Patch holds 79,000 tons of plastics

A 2018 study suggested that the Patch contains approximately 79,000 tons of plastics — some so small that even the average boater wouldn’t be able to spot them. And it isn’t just the Pacific that has the dubious distinction of having these masses of floating plastics; the Indian and Atlantic Oceans also have their own gyres in their centers, around which currents flow, causing flotsam to accumulate in their centers.

But the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is in a league of its own not only as the world’s largest body of water, but in regards to the amount of garbage floating on it as well, and as Slat estimates, it might take ten vessels dragging Jennys behind it to rid it of its unsightly burden.

This recent trash hauling effort was the first successful such foray by The Ocean Cleanup, which had set out from San Francisco last year to haul away plastics before it suffered a “systems failure,” according to Slat, as it was buffeted by pounding waves. The trash collection device basically consists of giant nets bordered by floats.

Being dragged behind what is in essence a gigantic trawler, the net system used in 2018 was prone to breakage as it sifted out debris from the surface and he upper water column of the sea. The Ocean Cleanup’s next attempt to clean the Patch was slightly more successful, as it did bring in some of the debris but it wasn’t efficient enough to have much of an impact, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

But the 2021 version of the Jenny, pulled by a gigantic Maersk ship, has fulfilled Slat’s dreams of removing a great deal of trash in an economically feasible way, making a dent in the plastic garbage in the Patch.

Slat hopes to remove 90 resent of plastic flotsam by 2040

Now, Slat says, he hopes to be able to remove 90 percent of floating ocean plastics by the year 2040.

The plastics picked up by the enormous net were sometimes as large as plastic bottles, but there are pieces of plastic smaller than a grain of rice that are also part of the Patch – and since they can be ingested by fish and other wildlife, they can pose an even greater problem to sealife.

While the floating debris is not dense enough to be picked up by satellites, oceanographers noted its existence years ago. The only way to combat such a large problem was clearly to pick it up physically — but therein lay another problem.

The use of nets in and of itself can be harmful to wildlife as they can become caught in them and die after not being able to free themselves.

And the net used in this effort is indeed gigantic, as befits the nature of its mission, at a half-mile in length. But that was how large it needed to be, Slat and his team believed, to be able to have much of an impact on the Path, which covers an estimated 1.6 million square kilometers (617,763 square miles), which is approximately three times the size of France.

24 trillion pounds of plastics reach world’s oceans every year

Guided by two boats, the Jenny’s funnel-shaped net captures plastics both large and small in its grip. After workers empty out their haul onto the ships, the plastics are taken back to California for recycling.

Of course, as twitch any large venture, some detractors point out that the nets are harming   wildlife, as sea creatures of any size can become caught in them.

But The Ocean Cleanup answers that claim by stating that the slow-moving Jenny poses very little of a threat to animals since it goes at a snail’s pace at 1.5 knots – so slowly that most sealife can easily move away from it.

Not only that but Slat’s system also has escape routes and even lights to help guide disoriented animals to find their way out of the net to safety.

Miriam Goldstein, the director of the Center for American Progress’s ocean policy told Earther in an interview “They spent I don’t know how many tens of millions of dollars to invent fishing,” adding that the Jenny is basically “a net dragged between two boats. We have a name for a net dragged between two boats, and that’s trawl fishing.”

Others note that the huge Maersk ships use huge amounts of diesel fuel to operate, thus polluting the environment as well, leading The Ocean Collective to create plans for purchasing carbon offsets to rectify that issue.

For now, Slat and his team are just happy that in Jenny’s final test run, she was able to collect 19,841 pounds of plastics and other floating trash from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Incredibly, a study from 2020 found that over 24 trillion pounds of plastics are still being dumped into oceans every year, and even this astronomical figure might almost triple by the year 2040. Equally disturbing is the fact that even with giant net systems like the Jenny working on the surface, other plastics are still accumulating on the ocean floors and seabeds around the world.

Undaunted, Slat says he is ready to tackle the problem, estimating that it will take ten Jenny nets to clean up half of the debris in the Patch in the span of five years.

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