“I wondered, why can’t we clean this up?” says Boyan Slat when reminiscing about a diving holiday in Greece where he encountered more plastic than fish in the ocean.
Today, at the tender young age of 20, Slat is the CEO and founder of The Ocean Cleanup, a company that is looking to mobilize innovative technology to help clean up the 8 million tons of plastic that pollute the oceans each year.
The Dutch entrepreneur and engineering student, who been recognized as one of the Most Promising Young Entrepreneurs Worldwide and Champion of the Earth, was only 17 when he came up with the idea for cleaning up the world’s oceans. According to a study by The National Academy of Sciences, plastic debris can be found in 88% of all of the oceans, posing a serious threat not only to sea life, but also to humanity.
Cleaning up the World’s Oceans
The Ocean Cleanup’s solution is simple: use naturally occurring ocean currents to push plastic waste to come to you, instead of chasing it around the ocean — a costly and resource-intensive process.
Slat’s concept works with a V-shaped array of floating barriers that float 10 feet underwater while remaining in place through an anchor on the seabed. As the ocean currents move plastic trash toward the array, the barrier collects and gathers it onto a platform, which is stored until it is later transported to the shore to become recycled or turned into oil. The system takes advantage of the fact that most plastic trash floating in the ocean is found in the top two meters of the water, meaning that it is an effective filter for collecting trash while allowing marine life and plankton to continue flowing with the current under the barrier.
“Considering the fact that what we plan to do has never been done before,” Slat says, “it is likely we’ll come across operational challenges which will require tweaking the system. However, the basic principles—the capturing and concentrating of plastic powered by natural currents—have been extensively studied using both simulations and proof-of-concept tests.”
Overcoming Skepticism and Criticism
When it is deployed, the array will span over 1 mile, making it the longest floating structure ever deployed in the ocean and the world’s first passive clean-up system.
The Ocean Cleanup has recently launched a pilot program in Japan, activating a 2,000 meter array in the Tsushima Strait. If the two-year research project is deemed a success, the company will begin implementing the system in increasing scale in other high-pollutant seas.
However, the project has its fair share of detractors, and some experts have expressed skepticism regarding its effectiveness. “Most of the plastic isn’t even at the surface waters that the array will be in,” says deep-sea ecologist and marine conservationist Andrew Thaler. “Now it becomes a question of what impact is this really going to have?”
In addition, a number of environmentalists have raised the concern that research and funding into the Ocean Cleanup are shifting attention away from the real need: making sure plastic doesn’t enter the ocean in the first place. As Thaler puts it, “We like technocratic solutions—a piece of problem solving we can drop somewhere that doesn’t require us to change our behavior.”
However, Slat has maintained a strong and positive response to the criticism. “It is not a question of either cleanup or prevention,” he says. “It’s cleanup and prevention. If a cleanup started today, it would be a bit like mopping up the floor while the tap is still running. Prevention is absolutely essential. But until now, the mop hadn’t been invented yet. The plastic trash that’s out there won’t go away by itself.”