Inside the Ocean Cleanup’s ambitious plan to rid the ocean of plastic waste

This article is part of Troubleshooting Earth: a multi-part series that explores the bold, innovative, and potentially world-changing efforts to wield technology as a weapon against climate change.

People have a plastic problem.

Take a moment to think about every piece of plastic trash you’ve used today. It’s dizzying. I’ve tried. Yesterday alone I threw out no fewer than six individual pieces of plastic packaging and used at least a few dozen more that I didn’t immediately dispose of. Multiply that by 365 and I start to question if I really am the “conscious consumer” I claim to be.

Most of my trash will end up partially recycled or in a landfill, but some of it, I’m sure, will end up floating in the ocean, amid uncountable pieces of other trash, in one of Earth’s great garbage patches. Estimates put the Great Pacific Garbage Patch at 270,000 square miles. That’s about the size of Texas.

bird on beach surrounded by plastic
The Ocean Cleanup

Boyan Slat has had enough. The enterprising young Dutchman set out to rid the world of plastic pollution eight years ago at the age of 16. In 2013, Slat crowdfunded $2.2 million to fund the Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit organization that builds big, floating trash collectors and sets them out to sea, where they’re designed to autonomously gobble up garbage. Although its trash collectors are still in development, the organization has since raised over $35 million.

ocean cleanup project boyan slat interview
Boyan Slat, Founder and CEO of The Ocean Cleanup

But the ambitious project has also raised a lot of questions from incredulous experts, who have long been dubious about its efforts. Feasibility questions have plagued the project from the beginning. More recently, a prominent marine ecologist called the project a “boondoggle.” From concerns about animal welfare to claims of misplaced efforts, the Ocean Cleanup can’t seem to shake its critics.

And it hasn’t been smooth sailing for the Ocean Cleanup’s engineering either. Early designs proved vulnerable to the strong currents and waves in the deep ocean, and part of the device meant to keep trash from slipping underneath just wasn’t doing its job. Then, in December 2018, the Ocean Cleanup’s first real-world collector, System 001 — nicknamed Wilson after Tom Hanks’s volleyball buddy in Cast Away — experienced a critical mechanical malfunction when a large section detached during deployment at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

These setbacks are part of the process, Slat said during a recent interview with Digital Trends. And despite the criticism and hang ups, he and the Ocean Cleanup are powering through to remain on track for its goal of removing 50 percent of the Great Garbage Patch every five years.

Watch the video above for a quick intro on how the Ocean Cleanup system works. Then read our Q&A with Slat for a more nuanced look at the company’s solution for cleaning plastic pollution.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Digital Trends: What first inspired you to tackle the problem of plastic pollution in the ocean?

Boyan Slat: When I was 16 years old, I when scuba diving in Greece and saw more plastic bags than fish. I wondered why we couldn’t just clean it up. That rather simple question stuck in my head. I kept thinking about it. I eventually had the idea to use natural currents and forces of nature, which led to the founding of the Ocean Cleanup.

The Ocean Project

It sounds like it was more of a personal mission than social one.

It was a combination of the two. I’ve always been obsessed with technology. I’m also a concerned member of the human race. Humanity has made tremendous progress in the past few hundred years when it comes to wealth health, education, and violence. But, at the same time, you can question how sustainable society is. On the environmental front, rather than going in the positive direction, things are going down. That could actually jeopardize all past progress.

“On the environmental front, rather than going in the positive direction, things are going down.”

This century, humanity’s biggest challenge is probably transitioning from something that was built in the last century into something that can still exists in the next one. Rather than blame and dismiss capitalism, technology, and business, we should use them to our advantage, learn from the progress we’ve made, and apply it to where more progress is needed.

You’ve set out to clean up the great garbage patches. Why start with something of that scale?

Well, the problem is big, right? To me it is not very motivating to solve one percent of a problem. Big problems require big solutions. I’m a firm believer of the venture capitalist-style approach to solving problems. Rather than doing many small things that you hope add up, it’s much more effective to work on projects that are high risk and high reward. If one of them works, you can actually solve the whole problem, or at least a large part of it.

ocean cleaup paths illustration
With support from an intricate network of marine and airborne vessels, Ocean Cleanup aims to remove 50 percent of trash from the Great Garbage Patch every five years. The Ocean Cleaup

The Ocean Cleanup is definitely a high-risk endeavor. I think it’s more effective to pursue high-risk, high-reward projects because, very simply, smart people like to work on complex problems that they can have a huge difference. It may seem much higher risk than, say, organizing a local beach cleanup, but the risk of high-risk projects may be overestimated simply because you’re able to attract better talent.

You’ve already seen the consequences of taking such risks with the setback in December, when part of the Wilson collector broke up. How did you react to the news?

My first response was a certain four-letter word. [Laughs] But there’s an important nuance to note. Of course, a situation like that is not what you hope to see but it is something that you can expect to see. There’s only a certain set of things that you can test for in controlled environments. We’re doing something very new. We don’t exactly understand the behavior of plastics at sea. We don’t exactly understand the fatigue properties of HDPE (high-density polyethylene), which is an important material that we use for the cleanup system.

“My first response was a certain four-letter word.”

At some point, you have to make a decision. Are you going to spend 30 more years with 20 PhDs trying to answer a question in theory, or do you learn by doing? I believe that the latter is more effective.

And It’s actually been a very successful first test campaign with Wilson. We’ve confirmed many of the assumptions and calculations we made earlier. The system is able to orient itself in the winds. It’s stable and able to follow the waves, catch and concentrate plastic. There are really just two main challenges that we still need to resolve. Retaining the plastic and, of course, the fatigue issue, which we’re now quite confident about what has caused that.

What do you think caused the fatigue problem?

In short, its fatigue combined with a stress concentration, so there was a very high local stress that’s several times higher than the nominal stress in the floater. The maximum allowable stress was crossed significantly, reducing the fatigue life. A clean pipe without any imperfections should last around 30 or 40 years. Due to that stress concentration, it was reduced to four months.

Now it’s about ironing out those stress concentrations, where the material appears to be quite sensitive. You could consider it a new discovery. HDPE experts didn’t expect anything like this to happen. The calculation didn’t show it would happen, and yet it happens. On one hand it’s very annoying because you don’t want something to break, but on the other hand its very positive because we’re really pushing forward the knowledge. It allows us to prevent this from happening in future deployments.

When you launched a few years ago, you set an ambitious goal of cleaning up half of the garbage patch every five years. In light of these recent setback, are you still on track for that?

Oh yeah. Going from concept to proven technology, or something that actually works, is many times harder than from something that works to having a full fleet of systems. The advantage of the approach we have is that it’s modular. Once we have a single system that works, we can simply build more. Our target is 50 percent in five years and 90 percent by 2040.

ocean cleanup pipe
Ocean Cleanup’s first real-world collector, System 001, nicknamed Wilson, experienced a critical mechanical malfunction in December 2018. The organization is now addressing the issue in preparation for another deployment. The Ocean Cleanup

Even before the launch, we decided to take an iterative approach. We’re giving ourselves a year to get it to work and we’re only six months into that year. So, we’re pretty much on schedule.

Given how much is on the line during this testing phase, I’m wondering what about this project keeps you up at night?

I’ve had quite poor nights because we didn’t yet understand those issues we just discussed, like the issue of retaining plastic. There were something like 27 different hypotheses and it was hard to eliminate most of them. That was quite a painful process.

Of course, what remains are the unknown unknowns, the unknown challenges. Say we’ve been out to sea for four months — maybe some weird behavior occurs after five months that we didn’t encounter yet. Or maybe there will be some condition in spring that we haven’t encountered. That’s the most annoying thing because you can’t really prepare for it.

Among the criticisms raised against the Ocean Cleanup is that the project addresses the symptom and not the sickness, which is rampant use of single-use plastic. How do you respond to criticism that the focus should be pollution prevention?

Firstly, what’s the alternative? The alternative is just leaving hundreds of thousands of tons of plastic in the ocean, which will continue to cause damage year after year, and actually get worse because it fragments into microplastics. I don’t think that’s really an attractive alternative.

“Nothing in the world will ever have zero impact.”

There are two ways to address the problem. We absolutely need to clean up the plastic that’s already in the ocean. It won’t go away by itself. But we do also need to make sure that no more plastic enters the oceans in the first place. These things should go hand in hand.

Compared to the cost of leaving the plastic out there, the cost of the Ocean Cleanup is really insignificant. According to the United Nations, the plastic currently in the ocean costs around $13 billion per year in terms of the damage to vessels, fisheries, and tourism. With the cleanup we’re talking about tens of millions of dollars per year. It’s no comparison. The cleanup is cheaper. I would argue it’s a financial no-brainer.

Other critics, including marine biologist, worry about the impact your collectors will have on marine life. How do you address those concerns?

Nothing in the world will ever have zero impact. I mean, the article you’re writing right now has an impact in terms of energy consumption and land use of the servers, where the website is hosted. But it’s all about quantifying the impact and making a sensible cost-benefit analysis based on that information. In our case, it’s important that the impact is negligible compared to the positive impact of removing the plastic.

Recently there was a specific concern about organisms called neustons. First, we have not observed any significant negative impact between the collector and the neustons. Secondly, simple mathematics and population ecology also shows that it cannot have a significant impact, as ecology is designed to be able to handle beaching events. Even fragile storms kill them. Our systems are hundreds of meters and, if you think of Hawaii’s coastlines, those are hundreds of kilometers. The impact of a fleet of clean-up systems is mathematically smaller than a single island of Hawaii.

Of course, this is our number one priority. It’s all about maximizing the good that the project is doing. But, so far, we’ve not seen any evidence that points or that suggest any significant impact occurring.

To check out the rest of Troubleshooting Earth, head over to the series homepage.

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