Ocean Cleanup Project's trash-catching prototype takes to the angry Dutch seas

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The floating barrier may collect some trash in the North Sea, that's not really the name of the game

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Its been a few years since Boyan Slat first revealed his bold concept to clean up the world's oceans, and now we're set to see how his trash-catching barriers fare in the real world. The Dutch entrepreneur's Ocean Cleanup Project has successfully deployed its debut prototype off the coast of the Netherlands, which will serve as a first test-case ahead of a much larger installation planned to tackle the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 2020.

Slat's garbage-collecting barriers have been described as artificial coastlines. They are basically long floating arms that rely on the ocean's natural currents to gather up plastic waste. Since he first introduced the concept, the Ocean Cleanup Project has raised US$2.1 million in crowdfunding and completed a feasibility study on its main target, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which some experts believe to be twice the size of Texas.

But before tackling this monumental vortex of ocean trash, the team needs to investigate how the barriers stand up under extreme conditions. Measuring 100 m (330 ft) long, the North Sea prototype is fitted with sensors that monitor its motion in the ocean, along with the physical loads that it is subjected to as waves rise and fall around it.

According to the Ocean Cleanup Project, a minor storm in this part of the world results in more violent sea conditions than an exceptionally heavy storm in the Pacific Ocean, which it says only occurs once every hundreds of years.

While it may inadvertently collect some trash in the North Sea, that's not really the immediate objective. The data that the team gathers through its monitoring of the prototype will help the engineers prepare to build a full-scale system that can withstand the conditions of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. And Slat says that the prototype surviving the test is no guarantee.

"This is a historic day on the path toward clean oceans," he says. "A successful outcome of this test should put us on track to deploy the first operational pilot system in late 2017. I estimate there is a 30 percent chance the system will break, but either way it will be a good test."

The operational system Slat refers to is a larger project spanning 2 km (1.2 mi) off the coast of Tsushima Island between Japan and South Korea. Here plastic waste is of particular concern to local governments with around 1 cubic meter (35 cu ft) of pollution for each of the more than 40,000 residents washing up on the island each year.

Other installations are planned in the years following, before a 100 km (62 mi) floating system is rolled out at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch between Hawaii and California. Slat says that the system could make it possible to cut the time required to clean up the world's oceans from millennia to mere years.

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