The wheels are now properly in motion for an ambitious plan to tackle the huge problem of plastic waste in the world's oceans, starting with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Ocean Cleanup Project's long-awaited collection system has been launched and is now en route, ready to chip away at the largest accumulation of ocean plastics in the world.

Former aerospace engineering student Boyan Slat revealed his vision for the Ocean Cleanup Project in 2013, imagining a system made up of floating barriers that would harness the ocean's natural currents to gather up trash.

The mechanics of the proposed system have changed through a series of redesigns, with the final product consisting of a 600-m-long (2,000-ft) U-shaped barrier that works with a three-meter-thick (10-ft) skirt dangling below the surface to collect both larger chunks of plastic and the smaller fragments.

Because this system is propelled by a mix of ocean currents, surface waves and wind, it travels faster than the plastics in the water that are powered by the currents alone. This, it is hoped, will allow the system to sweep through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and scoop up plastic waste for collection by a support vessel.

The venture is not without is skeptics in environmental circles, with critics questioning how effective this approach will be and whether it will cause harm to marine life that get caught in the middle. For its part, the Ocean Cleanup Project says the floating skirt will allow marine life to pass safely beneath, and that it is committed to conducting ongoing environmental assessments along the way.

Launched on Saturday from San Francisco, the completed system is now headed for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but will first be making a stop-off at a location around 240 nautical miles (445 km) offshore. Here the team will carry out final testing over a two-week period.

All things going well, it will then be towed out to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating pile of trash spread over an area twice the size of Texas around 1,200 nautical miles (2,200 km) off shore. The system is fitted with sensors and cameras so the team can closely monitor its performance and make improvements to its design for future deployments.

In time, this original system will be added to in order to build up a fleet of trash-catching barriers scooting around the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is estimated to contain 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic. The team hopes to deploy 60 systems in total over the next two years, which it anticipates can remove half of that plastic within five years. It expects the first plastic to be returned to land within six months.

"Today's launch is an important milestone, but the real celebration will come once the first plastic returns to shore," says Slat. "For 60 years, mankind has been putting plastic into the oceans; from that day onwards, we're taking it back out again."

You can hear Slat talk about the buildup to the launch in the video below.

View gallery - 11 images