The North Pacific Gyre — a whirlpool of ocean currents covering millions of square miles — is so full of trash that it’s often referred to as the “Great Pacific garbage patch,” or more precisely, the “Pacific trash vortex.”

It’s a swirling mess of plastic debris and chemical sludge. It’s also the largest ecosystem in the world, although many of the species living in it are in danger from the trash that surrounds them.

In 2013, a Dutch teenager named Boyan Slat came up with a plan to clean up the vortex. This summer, Slat’s prototype, a V-shaped barrier measuring 328 feet (100 meters) that catches floating trash, started to take shape in the North sea off the coast of the Netherlands. The barrier floats on the water, passively catching trash and consolidating it in a manageable area. It seemed simple enough, but the plan was thrown into jeopardy on Wednesday when Slat announced that the prototype had broken.

It’s a disappointing setback in an otherwise positive story. Slat founded the Ocean Cleanup Project in 2013 when he was just 18, and worked tirelessly to create a working prototype. He was ecstatic this June, when the prototype seemed to work as planned in the choppy waters of the North Sea. Theoretically, if it worked there, it could work in the calmer waters of the north Pacific ocean, home to all that trash.

The red nets catch stuff under the surface too.
The red nets catch stuff under the surface too. 

“This is a historic day on the path toward clean oceans,” Slat said at the time. “A successful outcome of this test should put us on track to deploy the first operational pilot system in late 2017.” Unfortunately, his high spirits wouldn’t last long.

The prototype did have its challenges: Slat had given it a 30 percent chance of breaking, and sure enough, on Wednesday, the Ocean Cleanup announced that it had broken. Underwater footage showed the two outer sections of the barrier had bent out of shape due to a failure in the mooring system.

Boyan Slat, founder and CEO
Boyan Slat, founder and CEO

The good news is the conditions facing the prototype were extraordinary. The North Sea is notoriously windy, often seeing gusts of over 40 miles per hour, which is relatively rare in most of the Pacific Ocean. It’s unlikely the barriers would come up against the kind of weather they faced in between the Netherlands and Europe while trolling the Pacific trash vortex, which is mostly in between California and Hawaii.

Plus, Slat’s prototype is relatively autonomous. The barrier requires no energy — it’s powered by the ocean’s waves — little human intervention, and the collected plastic can be recycled.

Around eight million tons of plastic enters the oceans annually, congregating in around five major areas. This plastic heats up the oceans, clogs up currents, and even prevents oysters from reproducing. Confused mollusks eat the plastic thinking that it’s plankton, which in turn reduces sperm and egg counts.

And the problem isn’t going away. At current rates, plastic will outnumber fish by 2050. If the cleanup project is a success, it could have a major impact on the global ecosystem.

Assuming Slat and the team find a solution, the barrier should be able to remove half of the plastic from the largest collection within a decade. In theory, the modular design could eventually allow for barriers over 100 kilometers (62 miles) in length.

Despite the setback, the project plans to conduct other research to eventually deploy to the largest collection. On September 26 until October 7, the team will fly a C-130 Hercules over the patch to collect sensor data and work out logistics of hauling all of that plastic to land. It’ll be the first time anyone has surveyed one of these patches from the air, and is an important step in the ultimate goal of ridding the world’s oceans of plastic.

Photos via Ocean Cleanup Project, Boylan Slat/Facebook, Ocean Cleanup

Mike Brown is a London-based writer with a passion for tech, politics, and photography. After studying Journalism at Columbia University in New York, he returned to the UK to cover the news as it happens around Europe. His work has been featured in IBTimes, Neowin, Building Magazine, and more.