It has been a long journey for the Ocean Cleanup Project, but after years of development and a 1,300-plus-mile trip through the open water, its first system is now installed at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. While this is a huge milestone for the team, the real work is just beginning for this ambitious mission to tackle the massive problem of marine pollution, which starts with the single biggest accumulation of ocean plastics in the world.

Exactly how much plastic is swirling around in this Great Pacific Garbage Patch is always going to be hard to determine, but the Ocean Cleanup Project has gone to some lengths to better understand it.

In 2016 it completed flyovers in the area using a C130 Hercules aircraft fitted with LiDAR and infrared sensors. This followed earlier research expeditions involving large fleets of vessels on the water. The data gathered throughout, combined with some cutting-edge science, has given the team a clearer picture of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch than ever before.

Researchers on the Ocean Cleanup Project say there are as many as 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic within the patch, weighing a total 80,000 metric tons, the same as 500 jumbo jets. Some 92 percent of it is larger objects, while eight percent is attributed to smaller fragmented pieces known as microplastics. These figures are somewhere between four and 16 times higher than previous estimates. All up, the patch is said to cover 1.6 million sq km (617,000 sq mi), an area three times the size of continental France.

So what can sticking a single floating barrier in the ocean do about this massive problem? Dubbed System 001, the U-shaped barrier is 600 m (2,000 ft) long and sits on the ocean surface with a 3-m (10-ft) skirt dangling below. As the system is propelled by ocean currents, surface waves and wind, it moves through the water faster than the plastic waste, which is propelled by the currents alone. This, at least in theory, will allow the system to sweep through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch scooping up waste like a giant Pac-Man before palming if off to a support vessel that carts it back to land.

The team conducted some final trials in the open Pacific en route to the Garbage Patch over two weeks, and found System 001 performed well enough to continue on its path. This included an ability to successfully hold its U-shape, and automatically follow shifts in wind direction to reorient itself as needed.

But there are elements of the system's performance the team simply can't test until it is put to work properly. For instance, it needs to harness the wind, waves and currents to move faster than the plastic it is trying to collect, and only when it is placed amongst the trash will the team know for certain if it can build up the required speeds.

With the system now installed in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the team will soon get a better handle on how efficient it truly is in collecting plastic waste and its impacts on marine species. All going to plan, the team hopes to deploy a fleet of 60 systems over the coming two years, which, according to modeling by the Project, could remove half of the plastic in the patch within five years. The first plastics are expected to be returned to land within six months.

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