A Dutch Student’s Giant Ocean Cleanup Machine Is Going Into Production

Its inventor says the technology will solve the marine plastic crisis, but some scientists are skeptical.

(Photo: OceanCleanup.com)

Jun 9, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

The oceans have a plastic debris problem, and it’s growing by 8 million tons a year.

Three years ago, a Dutch teenager named Boyan Slat garnered global accolades for a solution he devised for a high school science fair: a passive ocean trash collection device that would collect ocean plastic without harming marine life.

These days, Slat is a 20-year-old entrepreneur who is eager to put his massive ocean-cleaning idea to the test. A passing grade might lead to the removal of nearly half of the plastic debris floating in the Pacific Ocean in under a decade. But the process needs to be tested in real-world conditions before it can be launched at full scale—or beat the criticism of scientists who are skeptical that it can work.

Slat’s idea reverses current marine cleanup methods: Instead of sending ships out to chase floating garbage, position a stationary, floating, V-shaped buffer in ocean currents so that water moves through it, funneling plastic debris into a container for capture and removal while allowing animals to swim past the net-free device.

To test the concept, Slat and his company, Ocean Cleanup, propose to place a 6,561-foot-long float in the Korea Strait, off Tsushima Island, by spring 2016. If realized, it would be the largest floating structure ever deployed.

The first installation of Ocean Cleanup's plastic-catching device will span 6,500 feet—the longest floating structure ever placed in the ocean. (Photo: Courtesy Ocean Cleanup)

“Not only will this first cleanup array contribute to cleaner waters and coasts, but it simultaneously is an essential step towards our goal of cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” Slat said in a statement. “This deployment will enable us to study the system’s efficiency and durability over time.”

If the technology works, Ocean Cleanup hopes to build a 62-mile-long system that would float somewhere between Hawaii and California. This one would be big enough to tackle the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a mid-ocean gyre containing millions of tons of plastic trash.

RELATED: Ocean Plastic Pollution’s Shocking Death Toll on Endangered Animals

When it first conquered the Internet in 2013, Slat’s plan captured hearts around the world for its combination of boldness and simplicity.

But the scientific community weighed in with a dose of skepticism on whether it would work, how effective it would be, and its potential environmental impacts.

Slat and the 100-member staff of his company, Ocean Cleanup, answered last year with a 530-page feasibility report stating that Slat’s cleanup system was viable and that a 62-mile-long model would remove 42 percent of the plastics in the Pacific Ocean’s trash-laden gyre in less than 10 years.

But open questions remain. At the Algalita Marine Research Institute—a nonprofit group that has worked since 1990 to develop solutions to the marine plastic pollution crisis—marine education director Katie Allen compares Slat’s idea to performing surgery on a tumor with a chain saw.

“The intricacies of trying to remove plastic from the ocean is beyond complex,” Allen said, while the conditions are extremely tough on human-made equipment.

Among her criticisms, Allen is concerned that Slat’s device would not be able to capture microplastics, which make up the bulk of the trash her group has found in gyres around the world. Nor is she convinced that the design could tackle large debris, such as fishing buoys and the huge nets typically attached to them.

Allen is also skeptical that Slat’s technology could avoid becoming clogged with marine organisms such as barnacles unless it is coated with organism-killing anti-fouling paints. This biofouling can be a serious problem for gear used in ocean research, such as robotic underwater drones.

“The amount of effort and input that has to go into creating this project might not be worth the output,” Allen said.

If Slat is successful in deploying his prototype in the Korea Strait, however, Allen will be interested in the results. “The types of ocean currents and types of plastics you find in that region near shore versus in the gyres are very different,” she said.

So, Why Should You Care? If it works, Slat’s technology will be a big win for the millions of animals affected by the invasion of plastics into the ocean environment. Sea turtles, sea birds, marine mammals, and fish are often injured or killed when they mistake these plastics for prey and eat them, or they get tangled up in abandoned plastic ropes or nets. Fifty-two million tons of plastic fishing nets are abandoned in the North Pacific Gyre each year.

Despite the lukewarm reception for his concept from the scientific community, Slat has found high-profile allies. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti recently jumped on the Ocean Cleanup bandwagon; he signed on to ceremoniously welcome an Ocean Cleanup expedition to the Port of Los Angeles in August.

The fleet of around 50 vessels intends to collect water samples in parallel lines between Hawaii and California; the samples will be used to create the world’s first high-resolution map of plastic pollution densities among 1.3 million square miles of Pacific Ocean.

Here's a video that shows what the fleet crossing will look like:

The information should help Slat’s company position its full-size plastic cleanup system to pick up as much garbage as possible—if it gets that far.