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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.

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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.

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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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