There is a lot of plastic in our oceans.
To understand how much, consider: eight million tonnes of it ends up in the oceans each year — the equivalent of a dump truck of plastic garbage every minute. A recent report said by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish.
But Boyan Slat has a plan.
The 21-year-old Dutch inventor is the founder of the Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit that has raised millions of dollars to launch an ambitious initiative.
Plastic waste is carried by ocean currents and collects in five huge rotating systems, called gyres, in the major oceans. The most famous is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, between Hawaii and California.
Slat’s idea is to erect a network of floating barriers, each a long V-shaped boom that looks like a thick pipe on the surface, and anchor them to the sea bed where the plastic buildup is thickest. The ocean’s currents, he believes, will funnel the plastic trash to the middle, where it can be scooped up for recycling.
According to the plan, ocean currents would be unaffected; the booms would trap the plastic debris at the surface and let water and marine life pass underneath.
The Ocean Cleanup is set to launch a prototype in June, when the team plans to unfurl a 100-metre version off the coast of the Netherlands.
The objective is to monitor the effects of “real-life sea conditions, with a focus on waves and currents,” said Emma Lotte de Groot of the Ocean Cleanup team. “The motions of the barrier and the loads on the system will be monitored by cameras and sensors.”
(Slat, who dislikes interviews, did not talk to the Toronto Star.)
Oceanographers have their doubts. Some have called the plan unrealistic and, importantly, a distraction from efforts to educate people to keep plastic out of oceans in the first place. Others have said that it may work on a small scale but not in a vast ocean, where conditions can change quickly.
Max Liboiron, a professor at Memorial University in Newfoundland who specializes in marine plastics, said the plan “mobilizes a massive amount of resources to a project that doesn’t address the most plentiful type of marine plastics: microplastics.”
Pieces of plastic smaller than one millimetre, microplastics are consumed by tiny organisms and can accumulate up the food chain into fish.
Liboiron, like many other experts, is also worried that the technology will harm phytoplankton, the microscopic organisms — mostly single-celled plants — that float near the surface and are food for a wide range of sea creatures.
Machines that skim the surface can’t tell the difference between garbage and living particles, Liboiron said. The prototype “is akin to a giant ghost fishing net that is fishing for plastics but collecting marine life as bycatch.”
A major concern is how to limit such potential damage to wildlife.
“In terms of biological damage, the concept is flawed,” Dutch biologist Jan Andries van Franeker told the BBC. “They say anything alive will be able to swim under the curtain, but some, like fish eggs, will be trapped with the plastic … and in 10 years’ time you will take away all the fish eggs along with the plastic.”
According to Richard Dewey, associate director of science with Ocean Networks Canada, an initiative of the University of Victoria, few solutions are likely to be effective across all regions and pollution types. “What might work in the North Sea to collect floating plastics will likely not be feasible in the North Pacific,” he said.
Slat has done feasibility studies and conducted seven expeditions into the oceans’ gyres.
Drawing from those experiences, his team has said a barrier 100 kilometres long could clean up to 42 per cent of all plastic in the North Pacific gyre in about 10 years.
Still, there is the problem of anchoring something so large and delicate to the seabed 4,000 metres below.
Slat has said technology used in offshore oil rigs, which are moored to depths of up to 2,500 metres, can be applied to this project.
Can it be done? Oceanographers are waiting to see.
Slat’s project has garnered interest because of its potential affordability: he has estimated that removing one kilogram of plastic will cost less than $7. That is a tiny fraction of what it costs to have ships cross the oceans to remove plastic using nets.
The team hopes the resale value of the removed plastic will reduce costs even more.
Meanwhile, Liboiron said she would advise Slat to balance his approach.
“Technological development does not solve social problems,” she said.
From high school science project to global initiative
Greece, summer of 2011.
Boyan Slat was 16, on vacation and diving in the water when he realized there were more plastic bags than fish. He had a quick thought: “Why can’t we just clean this up?”
Slat returned to the Netherlands and, for a high school science project, dedicated six months to understanding the problem.
There was a lot of work to be done. Slat, who had always enjoyed working on puzzles, kept at this one. The solution came to him, he says, while he was sketching on a napkin in a restaurant: rather than chase plastic, why not harness the oceans’ currents and wait for the plastic to come to you? Let the water do the work.
It was the closest he has come to a “eureka” moment, he says.
Slat has since taken a break from studying aerospace engineering at the Delft University of Technology, given a TED talk that went viral, amassed millions of dollars in funding, created a foundation with a slick website, collected thousands of supporters and hired dozens of staffers.
But if anyone wants to know who Boyan Slat really is, that may be a tough find.
Scientists and researchers are usually happy to talk to journalists, patiently explaining the concepts, their conclusions and how they got there — they typically want you to understand and tell the world.
Not Slat. He just wants to be left to do his work.
It is difficult to find out where he was born, whether he has siblings or a partner, what he does when he isn’t obsessing over cleaning up the world’s oceans, or whether he drives. He did say in one interview that he works 15-hour days and hardly ever gets to see his friends.
“They try to annoy me by telling me how fun university is,” he said in 2014.
At one point, just after the TED talk in 2013, the BBC reported that Slat politely refused more than 400 interviews.
“I really hate looking back,” he told the Washington Post recently. “I think it’s useless. The only way is forward. When I look back one year ago, we were a handful of people and volunteers on a university campus. And now I’m walking into a meeting room, and am looking through the glass at 35 people we have on staff. I always hoped it would be successful, but never realized it would have become this professional or this big.”
In many ways, Slat is a typical 21-year-old. He may not want to talk to journalists, but he does talk on Twitter. Sometimes he is buoyant, sometimes sarcastic. He recently tweeted: “Why does the death of world’s oldest man always make the news? If there’s anyone you’d expect to die, it’s world’s oldest man.”