Cleaning the Plastic Ocean.

Boyan Slat wants to start the largest ocean clean up ever with the help of nets and ocean currents. He began testing his prototype this month.

Boyan Slat wants to start the largest ocean clean up ever with the help of nets and ocean currents. He began testing his prototype this month.

Boyan Slat was just 16 when he realized he wanted to rid the oceans of plastic. It all happened after he dove into the problem in the most literal way while snorkeling in Greece and finding more drifting plastic than fish swimming.

“I thought, that’s a real problem. How can we come up with a solution for that?” Slat recalled during an interview with ThinkProgress.

Indeed, the problem is real and large. Around eight million metric tons of plastic waste enter the oceans every year, according to a 2015 study. In addition, recent research found so-called garbage patches in every major ocean. Plastic is so pervasive that it’s been found in sea ice, and also inside 50 percent of all species of seabirds, 66 percent of all species of marine mammals, and all species of sea turtles.

Once back in his native Netherlands, Slat delved into the topic as people told him that cleaning up the ocean was impossible. Still, Slat, a young inventor who by then already held the world record for most high-pressure rockets simultaneously launched, persisted until he found what he was looking for.

“I saw this animation where they used computer models to show that plastic actually moves” through ocean currents, Slat, now 21, said. “And then I thought, why should you move through the ocean if the ocean can move through you.”

Slat, chief executive officer of The Ocean Clean Up, has taken his eureka moment and turned it into a collection system based on floating barriers attached to the sea bed that use the ocean’s energy to gather plastic waste. After obtaining over $2 million through crowdfunding and more from Dutch government financing, Slat unveiled the first prototype last week in the North Sea, just off the coast of Netherlands.


I am so impressed, I just don’t have words. This is so very important. There is much more at Think Progress.


  1. Kengi says

    Some of the scientists with more experience are less impressed. The question is if this is just a misguided Ted Talk which got funding because of the hype. Kind of like another Theranos.

  2. says


    Yes, that was mentioned in the article, but I prefer to see some sort of action being taken, rather than people just sitting around wringing their hands. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t. Maybe it will need a redesign. If it does work, great.

    There are always naysayers, but I’d be more impressed with them if they did something other than naysay.

  3. Kengi says

    The same scientists offered some alternatives. They aren’t just naysaying, but they need funding from limited sources as well.

    If it works, great. If it doesn’t, that’s a lot of money that could have been better spent on projects that were more likely to have a greater impact.

    I always worry about people who ignore the experts with experience in the field. His project is certainly better than doing nothing, but I’m not sure that’s the alternative in this case. I’d be far more confident if he was addressing the concerns of the experts rather than handwaving them away.

  4. Johnny Vector says

    If it doesn’t work, and it almost certainly won’t, it is worse than nothing. Because then it’ll be another boondoggle that the do-nothingers can point to to say “see how stupid those stupid tree-huggers are?” Nobody remembers what Solyndra was any more, so I expect they’re eager for a new example.

    Not to mention the opportunity costs that Kengi brings up.

    This kind of thing is ridiculously difficult. It may be that there is a design space that contains a solution, but if not, redesigning it won’t help. When your plan doesn’t take peak loads into account, your likelihood of success is almost nil. If you tried to design a bridge to stand up only to average loads, you’d be fired and probably lose your Professional Engineer credentials. Maybe in the last year he completely reworked the analysis to consider peak loads, but judging by his initial response to the criticism, I have my doubts.

    This idea is not as mind-numbingly stupid as the plan to put solar panels under roads, but based on the reviews Kengi linked, it’s pretty clearly a lot more difficult than Slat thinks.

  5. Kengi says

    There are also a lot of marine biologists who are worried about the damage this system would cause. When confronted with specific examples of species that would be harmed Slat wasn’t even aware some of those species existed. He just keeps going back to his premise that marine life is neutrally buoyant and will all just go under his nets.

    I fear Slat’s idea of “working” is physically holding together and collecting some garbage while ignoring the impact on marine life. But will it do more good than harm? That’s a question that needs to be addressed by marine biologists in controlled experiments. Slat, though, is contemptuous of “scientists” and tells them they don’t understand because they aren’t engineers.

  6. blf says

    Here is another set of criticisms about Mr Slat’s implementation, plus some suggestions for the project.

    Something I caution(and this point is also made in the various critiques) is to not assume there is a one-size-fits-all “solution”. Mr Slat has a large-scale scheme applied at an awkward point — in the sea but before(as I understand it) the plastic microfragments — which is potentially useful, albeit there are real concerns about impact, as well as the efficacy, of the implementation. However, you also need to stop the stuff from entering the sea (from entering the water!), clean-up (collect) the stuff that washes out, track down any illicit dumping that might be going on, recycle(as possible) the stuff, and on and on and on.

  7. blf says

    I fear Slat’s idea of “working” is physically holding together and collecting some garbage while ignoring [almost everything else].

    (Apologies if my edit put unintended / misleading words into your mouth.)
    I concur, that is also the impression I get. I’ve seen a very similar tendency with some of my colleagues — and have done it myself — though the details, of necessity, differ. The current example: A new model of U built with an obsolete toolbox is passing its tests, ergo, done. Two problems(which might actually be the same?): (1) The new U is incompletely-working in the current primary environment (which uses a modern toolbox); and (2) The new U is dramatically failing in the older primary environment (which uses that same obsolete toolbox). Customers use the “primary environment”, so incompletely-working / obviously-failing is Not A Good Idea. But I am having a hard time convincing “the power that be” that the new U is not “done” or to let the experts who can unravel what is going on try to solve the mystery.

Leave a Reply