SAN FRANCISCO — Amid a flotilla of boats, drones and helicopters, the Ocean Cleanup machine, a system of lengthy drifting trash traps, was slowly was towed through San Francisco Bay beneath the Golden Gate Bridge and out to the open ocean Saturday afternoon.
The 2,000-foot long system was pulled by a large ship, bobbing in a bay full of sailboats, ferries and a few kayakers.
The hope is that the vessel, the first of a planned fleet or 60 or more, can strain out the millions of pounds of plastic trash that collects in slow-moving ocean whirlpools called gyres, which can be hundreds of miles across.
The ungainly watercraft starts out as a long line of linked floating booms – 2,000 feet of them – towed out from the dockyard where it's been built in Alameda, across the bay from San Francisco. It motors under the Golden Gate Bridge and out to a testing area about 275 miles off the coast of California.
Once in place, the Ocean Cleanup, dubbed System 001, is deployed. The passive system’s floating series of connected booms naturally form into a broad U-shape. Below the booms, a 9-foot skirt gently corrals the plastic trash that contaminates our seas.
Currents and waves push trash into the machine's center to collect it. Floating particles are captured by the net while the push of water against the net propels fish and other marine life under and beyond.
A garbage ship then is sent out 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.
A multi-year project
The project is due to the efforts of Boyan Slat, who as a teenager was so disgusted by the plastic waste he encountered diving off Greece that he has devoted his life to cleaning up the mess.
The non-profit he helped found has garnered support from the Dutch government, individuals and many in the tech world, including Marc Benioff of Salesforce. Last year, it received $5.9 million in donations and reported reserves from donations in previous years of $17 million.
The system is being built in San Francisco so it can tackle the largest of the world's five trash gyres, the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch. These patches consist of huge concentrations of garbage, mostly made up of buoyant plastics.
Due to the gyres (which act like slow-moving whirlpools), the floating trash gathers in areas hundreds of miles across.
On Saturday, the Maersk Launcher ship took a cleanup machine out to sea, accompanied by seven staff from the Ocean Cleanup, 18 crewmembers from the Danish shipping company Maersk and five independent marine observers.
A press boat followed full of a polyglot collection of reporters and television crews whose presence signals the intense interest the public has shown globally to this audacious plan to clean plastic pollution from the world's oceans.
Occasionally, a small motorboat cruised by the press boat, full of what appeared to be fans of the project shouting "Hey, Boyan!" and "Go, Ocean Cleanup." Then the media coordinator explained that it was Boyan's mother, aunt and other family members who'd come over from Holland to witness the launch.
It will take about five days for the system to reach the testing area, where it will be deployed for about two weeks.
If all goes well, it will be towed out to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch nearly 1,400 miles off the West Coast, about halfway between California and Hawaii. A support vessel will fish out the collected plastic every few weeks, according to the Associated Press. The waste will then be transported to dry land for recycling.
Shipping containers filled with the collected plastic are expected back on land within a year.
The project is lauded by many as a positive attempt to deal with the growing problem of plastic pollution in the oceans.
"This is just the beginning of the beginning," Slat told USA TODAY. "It will be a relief to be at this moment, it's the culmination of 5 years of work. But we have a long way to go and lots more testing before the real thing – when we first take plastic out the water.
However, many in the marine biology and oceanographic world worry that it could keep the public from focusing on the real problem – stopping the seemingly endless flow of trash into the oceans in the first place.
While Rolf Halden, a professor of environmental health engineering at Arizona State University, applauds the effort, he says cleaning while trash pours in doesn't make much sense.
"If you allow the doors to be open during a sandstorm while you’re vacuuming," he said, "you won’t get very far.”