SAN FRANCISCO — As the sun rose Sunday morning, an Ocean Pacific cleanup system was slowly but steadily being towed out to its eventual, audacious goal of ridding the world’s oceans of plastic pollution.
Five years in the making, the Ocean Cleanup is the brainchild of a young Dutchman named Boyan Slat. He saw plastic trash polluting the waters in Greece when he was diving there in high school and he became obsessed with cleaning it up.
A vague idea became a plan, then a project that became a TED talk that found crowd-funded seed money. On Saturday the now 24-year-old got to stand on the bow of a ship and see the fruits of his idea be towed out into the Pacific.
The process has been neither simple nor easy.
"There were lots of hurdles, lots of zigzags," he said in an interview with USA TODAY on board the boat that followed the system. He began with one idea, based on the booms used to contain oil spills but quickly realized that wouldn't work.
Hundreds of tests, iterations and models went into what the Ocean Cleanup now calls System 001.
Though the idea of a 19-year-old college dropout coming up with a viable plan to clean the world’s oceans of plastic pollution might seem absurd, the project’s chief operating officer, Lonneke Holierhoek, views it differently.
“It wasn’t a crazy idea — it was an ambitious idea. It was a simple and elegant idea. Generally, the best ideas are. And it attracted people who wanted to provide knowledge, support and funds,” she said.
The team is based in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, a center for marine engineering. But the prototype was built in San Francisco Bay in part because it’s close to the world’s largest ocean garbage area, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and because it’s also a center of innovation.
“We went through cycles: come up with an idea, build it, test it, break it, improve it and then get a new idea and start all over again,” Holierhoek said. “The results have been extraordinary.”
The Ocean Cleanup is a passive system that consists of a 2,000-foot floating boom made up of plastic piping four feet in diameter. Once deployed it will form into a broad U-shape. Below the booms, a 9-foot skirt will corral the plastic trash floats in the top layers of the seas.
Currents and waves push trash into the system's center to collect it. Floating particles are captured by the skirt while the push of water against the net propels fish and other marine life under and beyond.
A garbage ship will be sent out every six to eight weeks to scoop up the collected trash and transport it to shore for recycling.
The system is fitted with solar-powered lights and anti-collision systems to keep any stray ships from running into it, along with cameras, sensors and satellites that allow it to communicate with its creators.
"Whales and dolphins may come to check it out, they might be curious. But it won't hurt them," said Laurent Lebreton, an Ocean Cleanup oceanographer.
The system will take about five days to be towed out to the testing area 240 nautical miles offshore. There it will be deployed for about two weeks.
If all goes well, it will then be towed out to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch nearly 1,400 miles off the West Coast, about halfway between California and Hawaii.
“There have been thousands of ships designed before, there are rules for it. But we didn’t have any rules to go on, because nothing that’s similar to this has been built. So we had to go back to fundamental engineering basics,” said Arjen Tjallema, one of Ocean Cleanup’s navel engineers.
As System 001 gets towed out to its first testing site, the team is already working on ideas for number 2.
“It will be different. The question is how different. That completely depends on what’s going to happen now to 001 once it’s deployed,” Tjallema said.
The one thing he knows for sure is that if system 001 works at all, 002 will be larger. "We want to optimize the size to make it as efficient as possible,” he said.
The biggest challenge will be to see how well it survives the winter storms that hit the area, which can easily bring waves of 40 feet.
“If we get it through the winter in good shape, that will be a bit of a milestone,” Tjallema said.
About 18 people, including engineers, marine biologists, oceanographers and staff, will stay with the system for about seven weeks on the same ship that’s towing it into place. Then a new ship will come with a new crew and supplies and they’ll trade places. That will continue until the group is comfortable that the system is able to operate as expected.
The idea is that eventually, it will be able to stay in the ocean on its own, passively collecting plastic. The plastic trash will be transported back to shore where the plan is to recycle it into items that can be sold, making the entire process self-supporting.
For Slat, the years of work are the best way to deal with environmental issues that might seem daunting.
Rather than protesting the things we don’t agree with, we should build toward a future we do agree with, he said.
“I hope the Ocean Cleanup can be an inspiration for other people to just get going. If you don’t like something, try to fix it.”