It Works! Finally!

Ocean Garbage
Closeup Of Ocean Garbage | Photo by The Ocean Cleanup

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” That old proverb is attributed to Thomas H. Palmer ‘s “Teacher’s Manual” published in 1840. That advice has been given by parents and teachers ever since it became popular. Thomas Alva Edison has been misquoted over the years concerning his comment to a reporter who asked him “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” Edison answered by saying ” I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”

We’ve all heard stories of how persistence through failure leads to success. An October 3rd article in written by Jordan Davidson and titled “Ocean Cleaning Device Succeeds in Removing Plastic for the First time” actually continues telling the story written in this column in February. The article quotes the founder of the company as saying “Today, I am very proud to share with you that we are now catching plastics.” The following explains how the company got started.

An article in The New Yorker online written by Carolyn Kormann and titled “A Grand Plan To Clean The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is what brought this subject to my attention. The article centers on 22-year-old Boyan Slat the Dutchman  who thinks he has a solution to the ocean pollution problem.

Boyan Slat
Boyan Slat | Photo by Peter de Jong/ AP

Slat, though a college dropout, formed his company Ocean Cleanup in Delft to develop his debris collection system. The article described the device: “…it consisted of a free-floating boom, bent into the shape of a horseshoe, with a skirt secured to its underside. The new idea was that the device, driven by the forces of the wind and waves from the outside of the horseshoe, would act as a sweeper, reorienting itself when the wind changed direction.” The “skirt” reaches down to about 10 feet under the ocean’s surface and is supposed to act more like a coastline trapping the debris as it drifts. It is estimated that “Wilson” could collect 2.2 metric tons of trash per week moving at a speed of 15 centimeters per second faster than the debris area itself.

System With Ship
Cleanup System With Recovery Ship | Photo by Ocean Cleanup

“GPS trackers, cameras, and sensors positioned every hundred metres along the length of the boom would along communicate the system’s progress to the team onshore, as well as indicate its presence to passing marine vessels and monitor for wildlife.” Most inventions end up with some kind of a name and this one is no exception. Boyan called his “Wilson” after the name of the volley ball in the movie Cast Away.

Map Of Garbage Patches (Gyres) In The Pacific Ocean | Image by Scientific Reports, Lebreton et al

The project was launched on September 8, 2014 and quoting again “As the weeks passed, Wilson behaved as the engineers hoped it would – reorienting itself when the wind changed direction, catching and concentrating plastic in its arms. But the much of the plastic would float away, back out to the infinite, or drift around Wilson and collect along it’s back. Slat’s engineers developed twenty-seven hypotheses to explain why this happened. Perhaps the surface plastic was more affected by the wave drift force than they had calculated, or perhaps an internal current – one much smaller and more localized than the main one they had accounted for – was slowing Wilson’s motion.” Their computer models had not predicted this and as word spread through the media, which had been following the project since the ocean launch, negative comments spread reporting that whole episode was a failure.

The Boom’s First Contact With The Garbage Area | Photo by Ocean Cleanup

A segment of the plastic boom snapped off, but was retrieved not adding to the plastic debris already in the ocean. There are many problems that need solving but Slat is not giving up. “This is just the first act. It’s not a system failure.” It does look like a lot of work is still ahead for Boyan Slat and his dedicated team of engineers and researchers. It is hoped that they, or other researchers, will develop a viable solution soon so we can begin serious retrieval of the plastic and other debris polluting the oceans of the world.

Slat’s persistence has paid off and with the reworking his team performed to fix the skirt and boom it looks like they will be clearing a lot of plastic from out of the Pacific ocean and eventually the rest of the oceans.

Let me know what you would like me to talk about or explain. You can comment below or email me at: [email protected].

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