Trash World: Man Attacks the Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch with 1/3-Mile Snake

Earth lights
Photo: iStock

Last month, a ship towed a strange two-headed floating snake contraption a third-of-a-mile in length out into the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco Bay. Offshore, the giant snake will be undergoing tests. In about 30 days, if this is successful, the contraption will head over to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that bobs in the sea between Hawaii and California.

When it gets there, it will be deployed at the Garbage Patch’s edge and, using the power provided by solar panels, move out with each head operating separately to drift and gather up some of the plastic laundry baskets, six-pack holders, plastic bottles, fishing nets, fallen helium Happy Birthday balloons, broken surfboards and whatever else has floated off to join this great conglomeration that, looking down from space, can be seen as some odd roiling object twice the size of Texas.

After the contraption gnaws away around the edge and gathers up stuff between the curve of its body, which will be “emptied” by a freighter that comes over every six weeks or so and will, by crane, sprinkle the garbage into waiting shipboard containers to be brought back to port for safe disposal.

I shall describe this contraption. Each head has a set of solar-powered lights, cameras, sensors and satellite antennas that communicate with each other. When in motion, the snake moves along in a U-shape. Stuff on the surface of the sea can get gathered up in the U. A metal screen is attached to the underside of the snake for its whole length. The idea is that this contraption, left there on its own, bobbing in the sometimes huge waves of the ocean, can capture a portion of this mass and stuff it into the hollow of the U so that, when full—the cameras and satellite antennas will confirm it—a freighter can come over to take it away. It’s sort of like a Roomba vacuum cleaning a living room rug that then gets cleaned out itself to continue on.

I read about this in the business section of The New York Times and it’s datelined San Francisco, where Silicon Valley start-ups, bolstered by investors, can turn into great successes. This one is now underway. Heading it up is this 24-year-old genius from the Netherlands named Boyan Slat, who has so far raised $35 million in donations for this effort. He’s right in there with other geniuses with odd names: Bezos, Jobs, Musk, Slat.

Slat has said the goal is to remove half of the Great Garbage Patch in 10 years. The business section lists several prominent Slat backers as investors—PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and CEO of Marc Menioff. To remove half the Garbage Patch, Slat intends to deploy 60 free-floating contraptions in the near future. Each will be constructed of a plastic so strong it will withstand the towering waves and rough treatment it will encounter and. (After which, broken, I suppose, they will be thrown into the remaining Garbage Patch, to be led off back to shore for disposal by a brand new replacement plastic contraption.)

Slat has said he is most looking forward to a ship loaded with plastic coming back to port.

Incidentally, Mr. Slat has tried to think of everything related to his contraption that might be questioned by environmentalists. The curved snake is designed to not trap fish as it gathers up the floating Texases. The metal screens that hang from the underside of the 2,000-foot-long length extend down 10 feet deep into the sea to see to that. Fish collected up along with the plastic need only look down and sideways to see they can escape by diving 10 feet deeper to get under the arms.

No problem. Fish love going in and out of things. As insurance, Slat has a Greenpeace-type boat loaded with animal rights scientists heading out to the two-headed snake, chugging along to see that everything is working according to plan.

Floating garbage
Photo: Nirun Nunmeesri/123RF

In spite of all this, experts wonder how 60 giant Roomba snakes could pick up and remove the trash faster than the residents of America and the rest of the world are setting out new trash to gather up into the existing garbage patch. Estimates are that 9 million tons of new plastic joins the fun every year out there.

I have many feelings about this whole thing.

One is pride. This is a great idea. Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before? A second feeling I have is annoyance. I have been left out. I think before the snake begins to attack the Garbage Patch in earnest, we ought to call a time-out so all the packrats in America—I am one—can take seaplanes out there to take back the good stuff to either use ourselves, give out as gifts for friends, put up for sale on eBay or carry out into our driveways to hold Saturday morning yard sales. There’s also that nickel you can get by recycling bottles and cans.

I think this should be done in waves. Otherwise these people will get into fistfights. The first wave should be the seaplanes full of people looking for things they can use. The second wave should be the seaplanes for the gift givers. The third wave should be for can and bottle recyclers, and the last wave should be for the eBay and yard sale crowd. Twice the size of Texas is pretty big. We might need a year. This is a very important thing to do, thinning the herd before garbage pickup. Makes the contraption’s job simpler. Slat has left this out.

Next, I have patriotic feelings about the Garbage Patch. It lies halfway between Hawaii and California, which is within the broad scope of America’s sphere of interest. The Chinese have built up the Spratly Island sandbars in the South China Sea and made them a Chinese military base. Our President needs to look into the military and political possibilities created by something twice the size of Texas that floats. It could be the 51st state, for example. Soon to be the largest state, even larger than Alaska until Slat trims it down.

I would be remiss if I didn’t note that having a plastic contraption bothers me. It signifies the truth. Slat is simply moving around the plastic. Out to sea and back. Back it will cover Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Oklahoma 10 feet deep, won’t it? Currently, the total number of plastic objects in the Garbage Patch is estimated to be 1.8 trillion. I would like to point out that since there are 7 billion people on the planet, we will be, by bringing back to dry land, some 200 individual plastic dolls, soldiers, cups, saucers, spoons, knives and forks that could be gifts to each human on earth.

Another feeling I have is puzzlement. Why have the ocean currents conspired to create a great garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean but not in the Atlantic Ocean? I want this question answered.

Finally, I feel overlooked. Ten years ago, I proposed having scientists around the world develop sponge-bearing rockets that could be launched into the atmosphere to soak up all the carbon-causing global warming gases. The dirty sponges would eventually fall to earth, to get gathered up by good Samaritans and given to workers to scrub clean and be made ready to be sent back up.

I also one time proposed that the front radiators of cars be equipped with a chemical that separates all the bad carbon in the air from the good stuff as the wind drives the air in while cars are going places. When full, a button could trigger the cars to drop brick-like waste out the back, to sit on the road for pickup by those disposing of it. I thought of this while walking my dog, baggie at the ready.

I should move to San Francisco. Maybe then the investors will come. Bezos, Jobs, Musk, Slat, Hawking and Rattiner.

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