In the literary classic, Moby Dick, Captain Ahab is desperately searching for the “white whale” that maimed him during a previous nautical voyage.

The novel is such a staple of American culture that the phrase “white whale” has come to refer to anything that has eluded a person or group for a long period of time.

When it comes to ocean pollution, the “white whale” of clean up efforts has been finding a large-scale apparatus that can clean up plastic and trash efficiently. Such a device would need to be durable to withstand the storms of the Pacific Ocean, but also have to be able to not endanger sea critters as it gobbles up harmful refuse.

Well, after six years of failed prototypes and testing, the non-profit company “Ocean Cleanup” may have finally landed this so-called “white whale” of sea scrubbing.

As reported in Business Insider, Ocean Cleanup has announced that its device has successfully cleaned a large portion of the infamous Pacific Garbage Patch. It can collect large debris like abandoned fishing nets to small refuse like microplastics as tiny as 1 millimeter!

Described as a “U-shaped, arm-like” catching system, the device actually doesn’t operate with a motor or locomotive system.

Instead, Ocean Cleanup’s device “passively” cleans up the ocean by using the ocean’s own current to bring plastic to the apparatus. This creates a “coastline in deep water.”

The most visible portion of the device is a 2,000-foot pipe made of high-density polyethylene plastic. The pipe is connected to a screen that extends about 10 feet below the surface and is responsible for catching plastic debris.

The founder of Ocean Cleanup, Boyen Slat, started his efforts as 19-years-old back in 2013. Since then, there have been several versions of the clean up device experimented with.

In 2018, the non-profit had a system where a screen was attached to the bottom of the pipe. The build up of plastic collected by the device was too much of a burden for this set up, however, and a large crack formed in the pipe, causing it to spill much of the plastic it had collected back into the ocean.

Today, the system attaches the screen to the pipe with a series of slings, reducing the stress from the amount of plastic and trash collected.

Additionally, the Ocean Cleanup crew discovered that having a parachute like anchor attachment helped slow the apparatus down, giving it the correct speed it needs with the currents to collect plastic.

Going forward, Boyen Slat plans to increase the size of the design that has proved successful and also wants to create a fleet of such ocean plastic cleaners.

That might take a little time, however. According to Slat, “there are still quite a few hurdles ahead of us before we are actually ready to scale.”

One such obstacle is that the Ocean Cleanup team currently removes plastic from the apparatus by hand once a ship tows the device back towards land. In order to achieve the non-profit’s goal of removing 15,000 tons of plastic per year, Slat and the team will have to come up with a better way to improve the plastic collection process from the system itself.

What’s interesting is that Slat’s team has said the majority of plastic they find in the ocean is not plastic bags or even straws, despite the media frenzy over such topics. According to Laurent Lebreton, a researcher for Ocean Cleanup: “We don’t really find any plastic bags or straws, but we find really thick, hard plastic fragments.”

That’s not to say such refuse isn’t out there somewhere or that society shouldn’t pursue more effective means to prevent bags and straws from ending up in our waters (straw bans do almost nothing to help), but it is fascinating to learn what those on the frontlines are seeing.

Slat’s efforts to perfect this all-around system may come sooner rather than later, now that he has a momentum of success.

There are a fair number of wealthy individuals and organizations who want to throw money at a program that has a proven record of ocean clean up success. The free market through technological innovation and individual responsibility seem to be on the right track with this new apparatus.

Then we may find that the “white whale” of solving plastic in the ocean is finally in reach. Like famed Captain Ahab we will say “There she blows!–there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!”

Let’s hope humanity fares better than poor Captain Ahab, however.

Author

  • Adam Houser coordinates student leaders for CFACT's collegians program and writes on issues of climate and energy.