A huge floating device designed by Dutch scientists to clean up an island of rubbish in the Pacific Ocean that is three times the size of France has successfully picked up plastic from the high seas for the first time.
Boyan Slat, the creator of the Ocean Cleanup project, tweeted that the 600 metre-long (2,000ft) boom had captured and retained debris from what is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Alongside a picture of the collected rubbish, which includes a car wheel, Slat wrote: “Our ocean cleanup system is now finally catching plastic, from one-ton ghost nets to tiny microplastics! Also, anyone missing a wheel?”
About 600,000 to 800,000 metric tonnes of fishing gear is abandoned or lost at sea each year. Another 8m tonnes of plastic waste flows in from beaches.
Ocean currents have brought a vast patch of such detritus together halfway between Hawaii and California where it is kept in rough formation by an ocean gyre, a whirlpool of currents. It is the largest accumulation of plastic in the world’s oceans.
The vast cleaning system is designed to not only collect large visible pieces of plastic and discarded fishing nets, but also tiny pieces of plastic.
The plastic barrier floating on the surface of the sea has a three metre-deep (10ft) screen below it, which is intended to trap some of the 1.8tn pieces of plastic without disturbing marine life below.
The device is fitted with satellites and sensors so it can communicate its position to a vessel that will collect the gathered rubbish every few months.
Speaking at a press conference in Rotterdam, Slat said the problem he was seeking to solve was the vast expense that would be associated with using a trawler to collect plastics.
He said: “After beginning this journey seven years ago, this first year of testing in the unforgivable environment of the high seas strongly indicates that our vision is attainable and that the beginning of our mission to rid the ocean of plastic garbage, which has accumulated for decades, is within our sights.”
The plan is to now scale up the device and make it stronger so it can retain plastic for up to a year before collection is necessary.
In a previous trial lasting four months the boom broke apart and no plastic was collected. Since then, changes have been made to the design of the system, with the addition of a “parachute anchor” to slow down the device’s movement in the ocean, allowing for faster-moving plastic debris to float into the system.
The latest trial began in June when the system was launched into the sea from Vancouver. The project was started in 2013 and its design has undergone several major revisions. It is hoped the final design will be able to clean up half of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.