Has A 20-Year-Old Found A Cheap Way To Clean The Planet's Oceans?

Dutch aerospace student Boyan Slat, 20, has an idea that could conceivably remove millions of tons of toxic trash from the world's waters. It even has a revenue model. But will it work?

Boyan Slat next to a drawing of his Ocean Cleanup project
Boyan Slat next to a drawing of his Ocean Cleanup project
Josephine Pabst

BERLIN — Twenty-year-old Boyan Slat studies aerospace engineering in the Netherlands, enjoys diving, doesn't bother much with haircuts, and prefers to spend his vacations in Greece. A fairly normal profile for a European student.

But in one crucial respect, Slat differs from thousands of his peers: He has an idea that 100 scientists worldwide find convincing — indeed some of them regard it as groundbreaking — and that could save billions, if it works.

Slat's brainchild aims to rid millions of tons of plastic garbage from the world's oceans. Exactly how much of it there is can only be estimated, and experts have differing views. The figures vary from 100 to 142 million tons. And the amount is constantly growing.

According to the United Nations, some 225 million tons of plastic is produced annually. Of that, 6.4 million tons wind up in the oceans and tend to stay there for decades without decomposing. Instead, they disintegrate into smaller and smaller particles.

Studies have shown that it takes less than a year for ultraviolet light, salt water and mechanical forces to jump-start the disintegration process. The problem is that this process releases toxic chemicals that even in modest quantities can cause severe damage to both ocean life and human beings. And they can end up in humans with astonishing ease — via fish, mussels and other seafood that take in the bits of plastic because they confuse them with plankton or other food.

Birds and garbage on Midway Atoll in the North Pacific Ocean — Forest & Kim Starr

And that's not all: The plastic garbage itself leads to the mass deaths of sea birds, fish and sea mammals. A two-year study conducted by Dutch research group Alterra had researchers performing autopsies on 600 fulmars — gull-like birds — that had washed up on the North Sea coast. They concluded that 90% of them had consumed indigestible trash, on average 44 plastic bits per bird.

The silver bullet?

Of course, Boyan Slat is not the first person to try to solve the problem. But unlike most concepts suggested so far, his has significant advantages. It is far less costly and holds the promise of markedly higher efficiency than the usual methods — for example, sending fishermen out with nets to trawl for trash.

Measures taken up to now in the Asia-Pacific region have cost some 967 million euros annually. "The Ocean Cleanup," as Slat's model is called, would require only two million and would be a good deal more effective.

"The amount of garbage retrieved by such projects is extremely slight compared to the entire amount in the oceans," says marine biologist Lars Gutow, who works for the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany. You only have to look at overfished regions in comparison to total ocean size to see that, he adds.

To deal with the problem more efficiently, the oceans' natural dumping grounds need to be researched. These are trash vortexes called ocean gyres in which plastic garbage amass naturally.

Charles Moore, an American marine researcher, was the first person to see the gigantic rotating currents when his ship ended up in the middle of one in 1997 on the way back to California from Hawaii. In the meantime, researchers say there are a total of five such massive vortexes. The largest one runs clockwise between Asia and North America.

Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The phenomenon is called the "North Pacific Gyre," and the area is more informally known as the Great Pacific garbage patch. This, the largest, is the subject of Slat's focus. Within five years, if his ambitious plan works, it should be history.

The model itself looks like a bird's-eye view of a gigantic V. Its two hose-like arms, each 50 kilometers (31 miles), would lie on the ocean's surface. Every 4 kilometers (2.5 miles), they would be weighted and attached to the ocean floor. Filters would be attached to the hoses that would catch garbage but pose no danger to marine creatures.

There's even a revenue model

The debris would be housed in tower-like containers that would be emptied by ship every 45 days. Then the garbage would be recycled. If the system works, it would be worth good money: A ton of plastic debris sells on average for 50 euros. Recycled, according to estimates from the German Council for Sustainable Development, it would be worth more like 300 to 400 euros. That would mean that cleaning plastic debris from the ocean could create 56.8 billion euros in revenue.

While most of the plastic garbage lies on the top three meters of the ocean, the concept would allow for most of the existing garbage to be collected. The model stocks energy in solar panels. Because no nets would be used, no harm would come to marine wildlife, according to documentation of the project, on which 100 researchers, scientists and engineers have worked.

The ambitious plan is due to be financed through crowdfunding. Slat raised $800,000 for a trial run. He and fellow researchers have already established that the idea works, at least on a small scale.

Overall, marine biologist Lars Gutow sees the project critically. "I’m no engineer," he stresses. "But I believe that a vehicle as big as this one, that spans several hundred meters, is unworkable."

There has never been a project this large that works reliably under conditions that can include storms, meter-high waves and inconceivable forces. If there should be damage, what then? Who would be in a position so far away from land to responsibly manage the system and repair it if necessary?

Gutow also sees other problems. "If half the world now thinks that a construction like this makes it possible to fish all the plastic garbage out of the world's oceans, then there is hardly any incentive for researchers to keep working on making sure no further plastic is produced, and if so, that it doesn't end up in the oceans," he says. "And that would be disastrous."

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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