At 17 years old, Boyan Slat founded the Ocean Cleanup Project, a nonprofit foundation to remove plastic debris that’s proliferated throughout the world’s oceans. Now, four years later, the ambitious Dutch venture has bagged the interest of high-profile Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and philanthropists, including Marc and Lynne Benioff, Peter Thiel, the Julius Baer Foundation and Royal DSM.
Recently, Slat unveiled an improved design prototype for the ocean trash trap. The technology comes with increased efficiency, allowing for the cleanup of the half of the garbage patch two years ahead of schedule. The Ocean Cleanup Project plans to deploy the new design in the Pacific Ocean in 2018, and estimated to remove half of the debris in just over five years. Without a doubt, the acceleration comes from the $31 million raised over the last couple of years.
Slat Improves Design to Collect Drifting Ocean Trash
What was once a high school project is now an ambitious venture that venture that oceanographers are closely monitoring. Humans currently inhabit what scientists call the Age of Plastic. Every year, humans discharge roughly 8 million metric tons of plastic into the oceans, where birds, mammals and fish mistake it for food. According to Boyan Slat’s anecdotal observation, by 2050 there will be more plastic bags than fish in the ocean.
Due to the ocean’s currents, impelled by wind patterns and the rotating Earth, a huge chunk of the ocean’s trash ends up in ‘gyres’. A gyre is any large system of circular ocean currents formed by Earth’s rotation and the global wind patterns. There are five major ocean-wide gyres – the North Pacific, the South Pacific, the Indian Ocean, the North Atlantic and the South Atlantic. Even in parts of the ocean where floating plastic is at its most dense, cleaning up the trash wouldn’t be very practical.
To Slat, the oceanic currents moving around is a solution. “Why move through the oceans if the oceans can move through you? Let the rotating currents do their work.”
Cleanup of the Pacific Ocean
The Ocean Cleanup Project uses the natural currents in the ocean to let the floating barriers clean themselves. Its technology consists of a curved network of large floating barriers that act like an artificial coastline, extracting debris like a vessel or net, in the ocean. Traditionally, methods such as nets or vessels take thousands of years to clean up the ocean and billions of dollars to complete. Boyan Slat’s concept is kind of a breakthrough for the future of cleaner oceans.
Slat’s first prototype was a 100 meter clean-up boom, deployed in the North Sea in The Netherlands. It was unveiled before the Dutch government and marine contractor Royal Boskalis Westminster N.V. The 100 meter long barrier is made of vulcanized rubber, anchored at a depth of up to 4.5 kilometers by a cable sub-system. It can float trash into a V-shaped cone via the ocean’s natural currents.
“The design improvement entails making the cleanup system mobile,” explains the Ocean Cleanup Project in an announcement. “Rather than fixing a system to the seabed at great depths, we will use sea anchors to ensure our systems move slower than the plastic. The cleanup will take help from a fleet of systems, rather than one massive system.”
Pushing Past the Naysayers
Critics are, however, skeptical of The Ocean Cleanup Project. Jan van Freneker, a marine biologist at Wageningen Marine Research in the Netherlands, suggests the ingestion of the plastic among seabirds in the Pacific has decreased by 75% after substantial reductions in industrial garbage entering the waterway. The Ocean Cleanup Project is devouring a lot of money to reduce something that might simply disappear in ten to twenty years.
A couple of years ago, Slat published a feasibility study, following years of expeditions into the gyres. While the study answered many of the naysayers, it also stirred a fresh round of skepticism. One thing about Boyan Slat is that he is continually refining the concept.
— Boyan Slat (@BoyanSlat) May 3, 2017
To cleanup half of the garbage patch in the Pacific would take at least ten years for $320 million. The Ocean Cleanup Project founder Boyan Slat would still need to fund the project. He plans to do so by using the plastic to make merchandise they can sell, like sunglasses and car bumpers.