An ambitious yet straightforward method of ridding the oceans of huge swaths of accumulated plastic began on 18 October with the deployment of a drifting U-shaped tube at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, midway between Hawaii and California. The Ocean Cleanup aims to remove 50% of the patch’s plastic within five years, and 90% of the plastic in all the world’s oceans by 2040.

Rotating currents have collected plastic into five huge ocean gyres around the globe. Early this year, scientists collaborating with the Ocean Cleanup estimated that the North Pacific gyre—the site of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—harbors some 79 000 metric tons of extractable plastic. Marine life can get caught and killed in nets and other holey or twisty plastic trash. Heavy metals and persistent organic chemicals from plastics enter the food chain.

The Ocean Cleanup approach takes advantage of the same factors that aggregate the plastic waste to begin with: winds, waves, and currents. A 600-meter-long tube made of high-density polyethylene bobs at the ocean’s surface. Held by rope in a flexible U shape, the 1.2-meter-diameter tube has a skirt that extends 3 meters into the water. Currents propel the tube and the plastic waste similarly. But the tube at the surface is acted on more by the wind and waves than the plastic garbage, which is mostly just below the surface. As a result, the garbage accumulates at the tube’s skirt.

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