It has been roughly a decade since Boyan Slat, then 18, unveiled his proposal to clean up the world's oceans of plastic.
Slat, aged 27, is a Dutch inventor and the founder of Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit organization whose goal is to remove 90% of floating ocean plastic by 2040.
That aim has frequently appeared impossible. In 2018, the Ocean Cleanup made its first attempt at creating a plastic-catching device, but the prototype shattered in the ocean. A revised model, introduced in 2019, performed better at collecting plastic, but the organization projected that hundreds of these devices would be required to clean the world's oceans.
Scientists and engineers began to doubt the group's ability to deliver on the tens of millions of dollars in funding it had received.
However, throughout the summer, the organization banked its hopes on a new device dubbed Jenny. The installation is essentially a man-made floating coastline that gathers plastic in its folds like a huge arm and funnels it into a woven funnel-shaped net. Two ships tow it through the water at 1.5 knots (slower than average walking speed), while the ocean current propels floating debris toward the massive net.
Jenny was launched in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a trash-filled cyclone between Hawaii and California, in early August. According to Ocean Cleanup estimates, the garbage patch is the world's greatest collection of ocean plastic, including more than 1.8 trillion pieces.
Jenny had its final test last week, as the organization sought to discover whether it could transport large amounts of plastic to shore without breaking or malfunctioning. According to the Ocean Cleanup, the gadget removed 9,000 kilograms (nearly 20,000 pounds) of rubbish from the Pacific Ocean, demonstrating that the waste patch might eventually be cleaned up.
How the new device works
Slat's ocean-cleaning gadget has gone a long way since the original prototype, which was a 330-foot-long floating barrier that looked like a big pipe in the water.
The most recent form is U-shaped and more flexible, similar to pool lane dividers. When its linked net fills up with plastic (every few weeks or so), a crew hauls it out of the sea and dumps the trash aboard one of the vessels that pulls it.
The plastic is recycled once it reaches the coast. For the time being, Ocean Cleanup is using plastic to create $200 pairs of sunglasses, with the proceeds going back into the cleanup efforts. In the future, the company intends to collaborate with consumer brands to produce more recycled products.
Slat predicted that the team would require approximately ten Jennys to pick up half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in five years. He claimed that a single gadget can hold 10,000 to 15,000 kilos of plastic.
The Ocean Cleanup system collects several sorts of floating waste, such as big containers, fishing nets, and microplastics as small as a few millimeters. However, it only catches plastic that is floating near the ocean's surface. According to research published last year, there may be up to 30 times as much plastic at the bottom of the ocean as there is near the surface.
Of course, the Jenny device does not prevent plastic from entering the waters in the first place. According to researchers, around 11 million metric tons of plastic are poured into the ocean each year. That figure might climb to 29 million metric tons by 2040. According to the Ocean Cleanup, ten Jenny devices could collect 15,000 to 20,000 metric tons of trash every year.