A huge floating device designed by Dutch scientists to clean up an island of garbage in the Pacific Ocean that is three times the size of France has successfully collected plastic from the high seas for the first time.
Boyan Slat, the creator of the Ocean Cleanup project, tweeted that the gigantic 600-meter-long (2,000-foot) free-floating net had captured and retained debris from what is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Alongside an image of the collected trash, including a car wheel, Slat wrote: “Our ocean cleaning system is now finally trapping plastic, from one-ton ghost nets to tiny microplastics! Also, is anyone missing a wheel?
Around 600,000 to 800,000 metric tons of fishing gear are abandoned or lost at sea each year. Another 8 million tons of plastic waste flows from the beaches.
Ocean currents have collected a large part of that debris halfway between Hawaii and California, where it is kept in irregular formation by an oceanic gyre, a swirl of currents. It is the largest accumulation of plastic in the world's oceans.
The vast cleaning system is designed not only to collect discarded fishing nets and large visible plastic objects, but also microplastics.
The plastic barrier that floats on the surface of the sea has a 10-foot-deep screen underneath, which is intended to trap some of the 1.8tn pieces of plastic without disturbing the marine life below.
The device is equipped with transmitters and sensors so that it can communicate its position via satellites to a boat that will collect the garbage collected every few months.
Slat told a press conference in Rotterdam that the problem he was seeking to solve was the large expense of using a trawler to collect plastics.
He said: “We are now trapping plastics… After starting this journey seven years ago, this first year of testing in the unforgivable environment of the high seas indicates that our vision is achievable and that the beginning of our mission to rid the ocean of Trash. Plastic, which has accumulated over decades, is within our grasp.
"We now have an autonomous system in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that uses the natural forces of the ocean to passively capture and concentrate plastics ... This now gives us enough confidence in the overall concept to move forward with this project."
The plastic collected so far will be brought to shore in December for recycling. The project believes that there may be a premium market for items that have been made using plastic recovered from the ocean.
"I think that in a few years, when we have the full-scale fleet, I think it should be possible to cover the operational cost of the cleanup operation using the harvested plastic," Slat said.
The plan now is to scale the device and make it more durable so that it can retain the plastic for up to a year or possibly more before it needs to be collected.
During the previous test four months ago, the cleaning device broke and no plastic was collected. Since then, changes have been made to the design, including the addition of a "parachute anchor" to slow the movement of the device in the ocean, allowing faster-moving plastic debris to float in the system.
The latest test began in June when the system was launched into the sea from Vancouver. The project started in 2013 and its design has undergone several major revisions. The final design is expected to clean up half the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.