In 2012, Boyan Slat was only 18 years old when he took the TEDx stage in his native Netherlands and presented an outrageously ambitious plan to clean up all the floating plastic debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in just five years. He was inspired by a diving trip in Greece where he saw more garbage bags than fish in the ocean. Now 24, Slat is the founder and CEO of The Ocean Cleanup, an environmental startup that's attracted more than $40 million to make Slat's teenage dream a reality.
On Sept. 8, 2018, The Ocean Cleanup will launch the first beta test of its plastic-collecting technology, a nearly 2,000-foot (600-meter) floating tube that functions as an artificial coastline, slowly accumulating plastic surface debris that will be carried away by boats for sorting and recycling. In a year, if all goes well, that first massive floating array will be joined by a fleet of 60 more.
Reached at The Ocean Cleanup headquarters in Rotterdam, Slat says that his team of more than 70 engineers, researchers and scientists are busily preparing for the maiden voyage.
"It's definitely exciting after five years of testing and expeditions that we finally get to launch the first system and put it to the test," says Slat.
But as the clock ticks down to launch date, not everyone is thrilled that so much money has been sunk into Slat's scheme to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is not a large solid island of plastic, as many of us believe, but rather a swirling concentration of microscopic plastic debris covering an area twice the size of Texas. There are five such garbage patches worldwide, each situated in oceanic gyres, massive systems of circulating currents.
Critics of The Ocean Cleanup
Some of the loudest critics of The Ocean Cleanup are fellow ocean conservation organizations and environmental scientists who study the effects of plastic pollution on marine life. All of them agree that ocean plastics are out of control — plastic debris will outnumber fish by 2050 — and pose a toxic threat to fish, seabirds and marine mammals, but few believe that a giant, surface-trolling buoy will make a meaningful dent in the global plastics problem. Some critics doubt this device will be effective at getting that microscopic debris.
"We're literally and figuratively skimming the surface by doing these gyre cleanups," says Jennifer Provencher, a post-doctoral fellow at Acadia University who researches how ocean plastics contaminate marine life.
Provencher believes that while cleanup efforts have their place as "one tool in the toolbox," the tens of millions invested in The Ocean Cleanup would be far better spent on alternatives to petroleum-based plastics and prevention methods that stop the flow of plastics into the ocean, what Provencher calls "turning off the tap."
Bonnie Monteleone, executive director of the nonprofit Plastic Ocean Project, agrees. She gives Slat credit for drawing wider attention to the issue and believes he has good intentions, but she'd rather see money invested in smaller-scale plastic collection efforts like Mr. Trash Wheel, a solar-powered vessel in the Baltimore Harbor that scoops up plastic bags, bottles and other larger debris before they float out to sea and break down into microparticles.
"It's certainly not a bad idea to also do that," responds Slat. "But that's not a substitute for what we have to do out at sea. These ocean garbage patches don't go away by themselves. Most of the plastic we've been able to identify dates back to '70s, '80s and '90s. We need to do both. I don't see them being mutually exclusive."
Watching Out for Sea Creatures
The Ocean Cleanup estimates that there are 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic swirling in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch weighing an astounding 87,000 tons (79,000 metric tons). Since his TEDx talk in 2012, Slat has adjusted the time scale for cleaning up the entire patch, now predicting that The Ocean Cleanup will remove 50 percent of the patch every five years, arriving at 90 percent reduction by 2040.
It's hard enough to design a plastic-collecting technology that can corral more than a trillion pieces of plastic in an area three times the size of France, but it's even harder to ensure that the clean-up effort doesn't harm the very marine wildlife it's intended to save.
To avoid trapping or disturbing fish, sea turtles and plankton, Slat and his team didn't use any nets in their design, but rather an impermeable skirt that hangs 10 feet (3 meters) below the floating buoys. Since water can't pass through the skirt, the current flows beneath it, allowing fish to easily slip below the floating collectors.
According to an independent environmental impact assessment commissioned by The Ocean Cleanup, the benefits of removing plastic debris from the garbage patch greatly outweigh any potential negative impacts of the cleanup technology itself. The report, conducted by Florida-based CSA Ocean Sciences, only rated one negative impact as "moderate," the potential for sea turtles to be attracted to the floating arrays and ingest the amassed plastics.
Monteleone of the Plastic Ocean Project believes the true harm to sea life would likely be far greater. She says that even researchers skimming the top 6 inches (15 centimeters) of garbage patch waters with a 3-foot (1-meter-long) net catch and incidentally kill marine life like small fish and plankton. How could a floating arm 2,000-feet long and 10 feet deep have only a "negligible" effect?
Monteleone is also doubtful that the buoys can withstand the stormy destructiveness of the open ocean.
"The real fear is that this is just going to become another marine debris item or cause entanglement," says Monteleone. "Even though [Slat is] making these great strides to try and eliminate the impact, it is still risky business."
For his part, Slat insists that his team takes all environmental concerns seriously, but allows that there are inherent risks and unknowns to a project of this size and scope.
"The only way to completely remove the risk is to actually deploy a full-scale cleanup system in the garbage patch, which is what we're doing right now," says Slat.
Marine biologist Provencher fears that glowing media coverage of The Ocean Cleanup and Slat's many high-profile accolades — he was Reader's Digest's "European of the Year" and TIMEchose his plastic-collecting technology as one of its "Best Inventions of 2015" — has portrayed the clean-up technology as a panacea for the global plastic crisis.
"What I'd hate to see is people believing that this is a great all-encompassing solution," says Provencher. "They'll say, 'We can keep using plastic and not address our waste challenges, because these types of things will just clean up the gyres.' That's where I think we have to be careful."
For Slat, it's time to attack this problem any way we can. "We don't pretend that we will be able to clean up every last piece of plastic," Slat says. "It's about removing as much plastic as possible before it's too late."