Boyan Slat was just a regular Dutch high-school student when he went on a diving trip to Greece in 2011. Once underwater, he was surrounded by plastic waste. "There were more plastic bags than fish," he told MNN a few years back. "That was the moment I realized it was a huge issue and that environmental issues are really the biggest problems my generation will face."
Like many of us, Slat had heard about various giant garbage patches the world over, and he figured that someone, somewhere, was working to solve it. During his research after the Greece trip, he learned that there were a few cleanup ideas out there, but most of them relied on using nets to filter the plastic out of the water. Those nets also scooped up a lot of fish, turtles and other sea life, and weren't practical. So he developed his own solution.
"I finally decided to put both university and my social life on hold to focus all my time on developing this idea. I wasn't sure if it would succeed, but considering the scale of the problem, I thought it was important to at least try," Slat said.
Following a two-year feasibility study, Slat launched his garbage-collecting booms from San Francisco on Sept. 8 for a series of trials. This initial run is a test, according to the Ocean Cleanup website, probing for any issues before more booms ship out over the next few years. "All lessons learned will be applied to the subsequent system," the group explains, "as we will gradually deploy more systems until we reach full-scale deployment by 2020."
During the test runs, Slat's team made sure the booms passed five main tests:
- U-shape installation
- Sufficient speed through water
- Ability to reorient when wind/wave direction changes
- Effective span in steady state
- No significant damage by the end of the test
Following several weeks of tests, the team reached a point where it had to decide whether to return to California for adjustments or head on toward the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Team members held a meeting on Oct. 2 and decided the current setup of booms — named "System 001" — was good to go.
System 001 arrived at the garbage patch Oct. 16, and its booms were quickly deployed back into their U-shaped formation, allowing Ocean Cleanup to begin its long-awaited mission. Slat tweeted on Oct. 24 that the system had collected its first plastic, noting it will "take a few weeks before real conclusions can be drawn."
Still, he offered a few early observations from the cleanup, reporting that "very small pieces seem to get caught too" and "no interactions with marine life observed." He added that some plastic items leave the system after being collected, an issue he says is being analyzed to understand why.
Slat's project has drawn skepticism from some scientists who see it as "well-intentioned but misguided," according to Science Magazine. But while it may still be too early to assess its effectiveness, the system has already evolved with impressive speed since Slat's fateful diving trip in 2011, and the testing so far has buoyed hopes that its ambitious goals are achievable. According to Slat's estimates, his booms will collect about half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within five years, and should collect about 90 percent by 2040.
A garbage-collecting coastline in the water
The design works via massive floating booms that sit on top of the water and act like a mini-coastline. Just like beaches collect our plastic waste, the boom can passively gather plastic waste and pull it to its center. Once a month or so, a boat would go collect the garbage.
Slat's recent collection estimates have gone up due to a design innovation — specifically, iterative engineering. Instead of attaching the booms to the ocean floor, which was an engineering nightmare, they can be suspended in the ocean attached to anchors that float deep below. This would allow the booms to slowly move around, but not so much as would prevent them from doing their job. The booms would mostly be held in place by deep-water tides, which move at a slow but regular rate.
"The forces moving the plastic around are the same forces moving the cleanup systems. In other words, where the plastic goes, the cleanup systems automatically go as well, like plastic magnets. The concept is more feasible, and also more efficient at capturing plastic," explains the Ocean Cleanup site. Slat calls his new system a "fleet" of cleanup booms.
The whole thing is solar-powered, modular and flexible to move with the tides. Originally, "Slat had imagined one massive device, perhaps extending as much as 60 miles," writes Ben Schiller for Fast Company. But plans have changed as the project has grown. Now the plan is to reach a full fleet of 60 systems by 2020, with the help of corporate sponsors. "That constellation is more scalable and less risky, he says; if one device breaks down, there will still be 49 others operating at any time. Plus, they can be funded as cash flow allows, rather than all at once," continues Fast Company.
In case you missed it, the video at top is an animated preview of what the deployment is expected to look like.
Time is of the essence
As Slat points out, only 3 percent of the plastics in his team's current surveys are microplastics. Most pieces are still large enough to easily fish out — for now.
"This is what scares me most," Slat says. "What will happen over the next few decades is that these large objects will start breaking down into these small and dangerous microplastics, increasing the amount of microplastics dozens of times — unless we clean it up. We must defuse this ticking time-bomb."
It's a huge job: In the Pacific garbage patch alone, scientists estimate 5 trillion pieces of plastic are floating around, some of it up to 40 years old. But Slat has done measurements, worked with scientists and used computer models to determine how much his booms can collect, and he's confident he can capture tons of plastic every year, and bring it back to shore.
And what to do with all the plastic waste that's recovered? Well, there's opportunity there. To help pay for the operation, this marketable plastic can be recycled into all sorts of stuff, from car bumpers to plastic logs to sunglasses and more.
Editor's note: This article has been updated with new information since it was originally published in June 2017.