The Ocean Cleanup Fails on Its First Effort

The device, known as Wilson, was towed from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to Hilo Bay in Hawaii in December after hitting snags on its maiden voyage, but the Alameda company that sent it is vowing to continue the plastic cleanup mission.


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Dutch inventor Boyan Slat is focused on getting Wilson up and running again after his plastic cleanup system failed on its first attempt at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Photo by Lance Yamamoto

After seven years of design and rigorous testing in the North Sea, Alameda, and the Pacific Ocean, the Ocean Cleanup System 001 failed on its maiden — and Herculean —effort to cleanup the North Pacific Gyre, or Great Pacific Garbage Patch, in December.

“This is not the end of The Ocean Cleanup, and we plan to be back in the patch in a few months’ time,” Ocean Cleanup spokesperson Jan van Ewijk said in a recent email.

For now, the System 001, aka Wilson — named for Tom Hanks’ volleyball in the 2000 movie Castaway — is anchored in Hilo Bay, a calmer berth than the open sea for determining damage and repairs. Van Ewik said engineers are considering next steps, including whether to move Wilson onshore, possibly the mainland or perhaps Alameda, where its journey began.

“We can’t yet say how long the repairs and modifications will take. We are still working on the root causes of the problem. But we are confident we’ll be back and operational in the GPGP later this year,” van Ewik said.

Wilson is the much-lauded vision of plucky and dogged Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, 24, who is on a mission to remove 90 percent of the plastic that’s currently in the world’s oceans by the year 2040. He is the founder of The Ocean Cleanup, a Netherlands nonprofit that develops technology to collect plastics from the ocean. The company established an office at Alameda Point in 2017, considering it an ideal place to launch its ocean cleanup project.

Wilson left the Bay Area in September amid great fanfare, media cameras trained on the enormous invention as it was towed under the Bay and Golden Gate bridges. Wilson initially traveled 350 nautical miles into the Pacific Ocean for more testing, where it successfully completed five main objectives before being towed a final 800 nautical miles to the GPGP, where it began operation in mid-October.

Within a few weeks, however, the crew noticed plastic floating away from Wilson’s U-shaped floater pipe, van Ewijk said, and a tow head on the far end of the system, connected to an 18-meter (60 foot) piece of floater pipe with two stabilizer frames, had broken apart.

“No prior indications were seen for such an incident,” said van Ewijk, noting Wilson had performed well in dress-rehearsal testing that had lasted several weeks.

The offshore crew secured the broken piece and recovered all parts with no safety risk to the crew, the environment, or passing marine traffic, van Ewijk said, and all was towed to Hawaii, ultimately Hilo Bay, for repairs and modifications.

But the initial two months of operation wasn’t without some success for the unique ocean cleanup effort. “We brought approximately 2,000 kilograms of plastic back to shore, some of which were ghost nets [nets that have been left or lost in the ocean by fishermen]. Once the system is operational and working as planned, the system should harvest on average 1,000 kilograms per week,” van Ewijk said.

Slat had set his sights on the largest of five ocean patches of plastic known — the GPGP, a “a ticking time bomb,” he has said, that entangles marine life, damages ecosystems, harms fishing, shipping, tourism, and enters the food chain, potentially threatening human life.

Coastlines, Slat explained, are, unfortunately, very effective at collecting plastic: “So why not build an artificial coastline — a U-shaped floating barrier that acts like a funnel?” Slat said. That’s how he came up with Wilson.

Slat compared the basic idea behind his invention to an artificial coastline, a V- or U-shaped array that will drift slightly slower than but in the direction of the gyre currents, thereby gathering debris along this artificial barrier, which then funnels it into processing platforms, where ships can dock and retrieve the plastic. 

Wilson is composed of a 600-meter-long floater pipe, made of petroleum-derived high-density polyethylene and a tapered 3-meter-deep skirt attached below, which weigh 380 tons. The floater provides buoyancy to the system and prevents plastic from flowing over it, while the skirt stops debris from escaping underneath. 

Slat’s system is also energy-neutral, thanks to a design that will allow wind, waves, and currents to propel it through the gyre at slower speeds than the debris. Only the support vessels that will bring the accumulated plastic back to shore will require fuel. 

Since its formation in 2013, The Ocean Cleanup has raised more than $30 million internationally, and funds from such Bay Area luminaries as Salesforce founders Marc and Lynne Benioff and Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel, though the system will need another $350 million to be completed. Slat has earned many accolades. His detractors, however, contend a more holistic solution to marine plastic pollution also involves reducing the consumption of single-use products, preventing plastics from entering waterways, and holding manufacturers accountable for its safe disposal. For his part, Slat believes the sight of vessels returning from the gyre piled high with retrieved plastic will create powerful and motivational visuals.

Van Ewik said Slat wasn’t available now for comment, because he’s focused on getting Wilson up and running again. Given Slat’s drive, passion, and success so far, it’s hard to think of him giving up after this setback.

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