Here comes the first part of the attempt by Boyan Slat and his plans to remove plastic waste from the oceans..
19-year-old Boyan Slat has unveiled plans to create an Ocean Cleanup Array that could remove 7,250,000 tons of plastic waste from the world’s oceans. The device consists of an anchored network of floating booms and processing platforms that could be dispatched to garbage patches around the world.
Instead of moving through the ocean, the array would span the radius of a garbage patch, acting as a giant funnel. The angle of the booms would force plastic in the direction of the platforms, where it would be separated from plankton, filtered and stored for recycling.
At school, Boyan Slat launched a project that analyzed the size and amount of plastic particles in the ocean’s garbage patches. His final paper went on to win several prizes, including Best Technical Design 2012 at the Delft University of Technology. Boyan continued to develop his concept during the summer of 2012, and he revealed it several months later at TEDxDelft 2012.
Slat went on to found The Ocean Cleanup Foundation, a non-profit organization which is responsible for the development of his proposed technologies. His ingenious solution could potentially save hundreds of thousands of aquatic animals annually, and reduce pollutants (including PCB and DDT) from building up in the food chain. It could also save millions per year, both in clean-up costs, lost tourism and damage to marine vessels. It is estimated that the clean-up process would take about five years, and it could greatly increase awareness about the world’s plastic garbage patches.
On his site Slat says, “One of the problems with preventive work is that there isn’t any imagery of these ‘garbage patches’, because the debris is dispersed over millions of square kilometres. By placing our arrays however, it will accumulate along the booms, making it suddenly possible to actually visualize the oceanic garbage patches. We need to stress the importance of recycling, and reducing our consumption of plastic packaging.
Here comes the second part the revelation or the questions on feasibility of this attempt…
Following his Proposal Stiv Wilson, the policy director of the ocean conservation nonprofit 5Gyres.org, came up with his views saying “The solution to this problem isn’t elegant, and there exists no silver bullet. The first step in solving the problem is to personally lower your plastic consumption. The next steps are to get involved in cleanups, get involved in campaigns to eliminate problem products, and demand that companies take responsibility for their products post consumer. There is a lot to be hopeful about, even if the real solutions don’t appear real sexy. But with engagement, en masse, there is light at the end of the sewer pipe. Unfortunately with Slat’s idea, I see only wasted resources and more ocean garbage in the making.” He detailed as follows
As the policy director of the ocean conservation nonprofit 5Gyres.org, I can tell you that the problem of ocean plastic pollution is massive. In case you didn’t know, an ocean gyre is a rotating current that circulates within one of the world’s oceans – and recent research has found that these massive systems are filled with plastic waste. There are no great estimates (at least scientific) on how much plastic is in the ocean, but I can say from firsthand knowledge (after sailing to four of the world’s five gyres) that it’s so pervasive it confounds the senses. Gyre cleanup has often been floated as a solution in the past, and recently Boyan Slat’s proposed ‘Ocean Cleanup Array’ went viral in a big way. The nineteen-year-old claims that the system can clean a gyre in 5 years with ‘unprecedented efficiency’ and then recycle the trash collected. The problem is that the barriers to gyre cleanup are so massive that the vast majority of the scientific and advocacy community believe it’s a fool’s errand – the ocean is big, the plastic harvested is near worthless, and sea life would be harmed. The solutions starts on land.
The sea is cruel and it’s really really really big
The nonprofit I work for, as part of its mission, takes people other than scientists on expeditions to the gyres. Why? It’s simple; we want regular people, like Slat, to understand the scale of the problem and the vectors that contribute to the difficulty of solving it by being informed by a firsthand vantage. So far, we’ve taken one gyre cleanup advocate across the South Atlantic, from Brazil to South Africa. We had 22 days of storms with seas in excess of 30 feet at times. By the time we got to the other side, some 30+ days later, he’d abandoned his hope of cleaning the gyres once he realized how big a ‘place’ we’re talking about. What I find astonishing is that out of all the gyre cleanup proponents I’ve met, none of them have ever been to the gyres.
The ocean surface is 315 million square kilometers; 70% of the earth’s surface. Plastic isn’t just contained within the borders of the gyres, it’s everywhere in the ocean. Half of it, like Coke bottles and PVC pipe, sinks. What does a garbage patch look like? Imagine the night sky on a cloudless, moonless night. Now replace the ocean surface with space, and the stars with plastic; it’s dispersed and it goes on infinitely. Yes, humans have managed to create a problem on a degree of scale that’s nearly incomprehensible and so overwhelming we’re predisposed to like ideas like Slat’s because it has the appearance of near divine simplicity. Every time a gyre cleanup proponent has shown me a design for addressing the problem, the first thing I ask is, ‘do you have the money to make 20 million of those doo–hickies?’ They look at me with a puzzled look, and I just mutter, ‘The ocean is really, really, really, big.”
But beyond the size of the ocean, the sea is one giant corrosive force. Even on just a month-long sail across The South Atlantic, we tore our sails twice, broke some rigging, and utterly destroyed awind-powered generator—all due to the force of nature. Any blue water sailor will tell you about how destructive the sea is to anything with moving parts. That’s why sailors say, ‘a boat is a hole you fill with money.’ Heck, outer space is less corrosive to machines than the ocean is.
But let’s look at a practical example. My home state of Oregon has been trying to create North America’s first offshore wave energy farm. The first test buoy that was launched, just about 2.5 miles offshore, sank after just a few months. That buoy had a ‘100 year survivability’ rating, and wasn’t just an idea on an Ipad. That was the result of an incredible amount of engineering and venture capital. The company, Finavera Renewables, has since abandoned their wave energy ambitions. Is it because Finavera lacked vision? No. Whether you like it or not, Finavera, like all for-profit schemes, is governed by profit and loss. What’s interesting is that Finavera actually had a product (energy) that was worth money, and still it didn’t pencil out. Eventually, because energy IS so valuable and wave farms are near shore, the technology will become more viable. Which leads me to my next point.
The economics of gyre cleanup don’t work – and a few notes on recycling
The two most common types of plastic in the ocean are polyethylene (PE- plastic bags, dispensing bottles) and polypropylene (PP- bottle caps, fishing gear). So, it stands to reason that these types of plastic would be what Slat’s machine would ‘harvest’ to sell to recyclers. Well, if the economic viability of Slat’s ocean cleaning device rests on his assumption that it will produce a product that will be sold in the market, he needs to better understand the market landscape for his product.
Plastics, chemically speaking, are polymer chains of monomer hydrocarbon molecules. Ultraviolet light weakens the polymer chains until they break, which is why you have the confetti-like micro-plastics found in the ocean. The number one barrier to a closed loop, cradle-to-cradle scenario for plastic is that recycling weakens the polymer chains and thus, the structural integrity of what you can recycle them into. Ocean-borne plastics are so brittle you can break them apart with your fingers, and they’re also saturated with toxic chemicals present in seawater. Another issue is bio-fouling. Life adheres to plastic, and for the most part, plastic can only be recycled if it’s clean or cleaned. Another issue is that plastics have to be separated by type, i.e. PP, PE, etc. In an ocean plastic scenario where all these bits are crazy small, this requires spectroscopic analysis that identifies plastic by the frequency of light it reflects. This is very expensive, even in an automated scenario. Another issue is transportation—plastic bags are hardly ever recycled because in most places, it’s more expensive to transport them to a recycler then the recycler will pay for them. So, from the market analysis standpoint in a gyre cleanup business plan, ocean plastics are about the worst possible feedstock for recycling imaginable, putting the product at a severe competitive disadvantage. Put it this way: Hiring people to climb trees in New York City to gather all the plastic bags in their branches would be more efficient and cheaper than ocean harvesting. Wait, do I sound crazy? Or visionary?
One company, Envision Plastics, has successfully managed to use ocean plastics, working with a company called Method to create a bottle with 25% post-ocean High Density Polyethylene (HDPE). But the economic viability of the product is the issue. Out of 67 products listed on Method’s website, only one is packaged in this type of bottle and it costs a dollar more than other products of the same volume in other types of recycled bottles. Envision Plastics does not advertise ‘Ocean Plastic’ as a wholesale product available on their website. The fact that Method’s ‘Ocean Plastic’ didn’t take off should be noted in Boyan Slat’s feasibility study. Slat seems at least cognizant of this problem when he says:
“According to current estimations – due to the plan’s unprecedented efficiency—recycling benefits would significantly outweigh the costs of executing the project. Although the quality of the plastic is somewhat lower than ordinary recycled plastic it could for example be mixed with other plastics to produce high-quality products. PR through an Ocean Plastics brand can further increase the plastics’ value, and would create awareness with the consumer.”
First up, there is no “plan” so it’s really difficult to vet its “unprecedented efficiency.” And “quality of plastic somewhat lower?” The word “terrible” is a better description. Though cool and innovative, Envision’s Ocean Plastic hasn’t taken off – and do you remember the massive PR around it just months ago? It’s gone.
Like the size of the ocean, the amount of plastic we consume is an issue of scale. In North America, the annual per capita consumption of plastic is roughly 326 pounds as of 2010. That statistic is up nearly a 100 pounds per capita from 2001. Of course, the plastics industry doesn’t like the idea of us consuming less because it means less plastic sold. They keep saying all we need is ‘more recycling.’ But despite even nominal gains in recycling, the sum total of virgin plastics produced in the world annually is going up, not down, which means the sum total of plastics entering the ocean is going up, too. I’m not anti-recycling; recovery is part of the solution, albeit small.
The problem is that the economics of most recycling are terrible, especially in the case of Polyethylene and Polypropylene. A growing single-use input for a market that has a sustained-use durable goods output means the input is always going to be greater than the output – that is – the supply will always exceed demand. Most plastics are very difficult to recycle not because we lack infrastructure, but because they’re not worth enough in a commodities market to incentivize venture capitalists to invest in more infrastructure to process them. Let’s remember that recycling isn’t the work of little green altruistic elves and fairies, it’s a business.
But even when plastics do get recycled, in the vast majority of cases, recycling only kicks the can down the road one generation by creating a product that can’t or won’t (because of economic constraints) be recycled again. In short, the vast majority of the recycling industry isn’t doing anything to solve marine plastic pollution, and for the most part, recycling is just creating a secondary market for waste. Even if the economics of Slat’s Ocean Cleanup Array didn’t further impede its viability, more plastic would still be entering the ocean than his device would pull out. Placing fees on producers of virgin plastics, and giving breaks to those who use 100% recycled content or are actively working towards it, would help to balance this equation out and would be great news for the ocean.
What about the science?
In the simplest of terms, anything floating in the ocean tends to be a ‘party barge’ for life. What I’d like to see for Slat’s design is a time-lapse of his structure at sea predicting how fast it would be colonized by sea life—colonization happens very quickly. I can personally attest to this from recovering tsunami debris at sea, just a year after the devastating wave hit Japan. Anywhere you have seawater you’re going to have havoc wreaking barnacles. Anywhere where you have a platform, you’re going to have dead squid and flying fish stranding themselves, which will attract sea birds, and thus, guano. All of this stuff, coupled with salt, makes moving parts seize.
Little sea life attracts big sea life. Big sea life means entanglement issues. And unfortunately, sea life big or small is notorious for not doing what designers assume it will do. Slat’s design depicts massive booms sticking out of the sides in a ‘V’ pattern thus corralling the floating plastic into some mysterious filter that will separate plankton and plastic. First up, life would colonize the booms, weight it down, and create their own current and eddies around it which would affect the ‘flow’ of how the thing is supposed to work. Fish, attracted by the littler life and the protection from larger predators tend to be voracious ‘munchers’ and thus, really destructive. Oh and storms? You can’t imagine the ferocity we’re talking about until you’ve sailed in full gale. The wind itself becomes audible.
Slat claims that 24 of his devices are all that is needed to cleanup each gyre in 5 years. How massively long are the booms, and how do they stay in a ‘V’ shape that Slat assumes is needed to gather the plastic? Where on earth does the 24 number come from? Slat mentions that these would be anchored to the seabed. That’s great, but it’s not currently possible to anchor anything in 4,000 meters of water (the average depth of the open ocean). The deepest known mooring is 2,000 meters. Even if you could anchor it, one big storm and his device is going to be ripped from its mooring. Ask NOAA about how many data buoys they lose to storms, even in shallow water.
Another technicality is bycatch. Slat suggests that plankton wouldn’t be collected along with the plastic, though he admits more research is needed on this. The definition of plankton is an organism that can’t swim against a current; plankton have no control where they go and the assumption that they’ll somehow avoid the current that is taking the plastic into the processing thinga-ma-jiggy is a bad one. After conducting 50+ surface samples myself, at least half of the material we get from the surface is biomass. Zooplankton is really fragile, and trying to separate it from plastic in most cases is going to damage these critters beyond survivability, especially on an industrial scale. Plan B in Slat’s concept is to centrifuge the critters out—that would rip off their antennae and feeding apparatus. Scientists, when collecting zooplankton, use live catch nets and are very, very careful so as not to damage them. Plankton biologists, needless to say, are skeptical. Though zooplankton certainly isn’t the most charismatic fauna out there (and probably wouldn’t draw the ire of PETA if Slat’s device killed them), let’s remember that all life in the ocean depends on plankton at the base of the food chain. And if one endangered sea turtle was caught up? The fines that Slat would face would bankrupt his project in a second.
Perhaps one of the worst assumptions evident in this design is that the plastic will be on the sea surface. Researchers have shown that plastic suspends in the water column at 100-150 meters due to wave action and sea state. Not only does this mean that Slat’s design wouldn’t capture this plastic, it shows that his estimates of how much plastic is out there aren’t correct and thus, his five year timeframe to clean a gyre becomes even more unrealistic. For more analysis on what the premiere scientists working on the issue think, go here.
Why so bitter?
I absolutely love human creativity, especially when it’s channeled for a greater environmental good. But why I have such an adverse reaction to Slat’s concept is the naiveté with which he proposes it. And sure, maybe I’m a bit jealous that this tale of how solve the problem went viral when so many of my colleagues working on real solutions go unnoticed and uncelebrated by the media. But I also smell an arrogance here—an arrogance that flies in the face of everything we know about the ocean and the problems with recycling. If Slat were just simply floating a design concept, that would be one thing, but that’s not exactly how he portrays it–and all the ipso facto disclaimers working in concert with a fundraising scheme are really troubling. Slat’s facebook page feeds this in its tagline: “The first realistic ocean clean-up concept?” Seriously? Maybe he has the best intentions, but I find this gyre cleanup stuff to be a major distraction from the real solutions to the problem and as such, counter productive. To me, quite frankly, he’s selling snake oil even if he doesn’t know it yet. Remember what William Blake said about good intentions?
The good news
Here’s something that will blow your mind—to clean the ocean of floating plastic, you don’t need to go out and get it, it will come to you. Yep, that’s right. Oceanographer Curtis Ebbsmeyer, author of, Flotsametrics describes a rarely talked about phenomena that occurs naturally in the ocean called Gyre Memory. Gyre Memory demonstrates that upon each orbit of a gyre, the gyre will spit out about half its contents. These contents will then either enter another current or gyre or wash up on land. As this repeats, it means that eventually, all the plastic in the ocean will be spit – out which is why you find plastic fragments on every beach in the world. Beach cleanup is gyre cleanup.
The solution to this problem isn’t elegant, and there exists no silver bullet. The first step in solving the problem is to personally lower your plastic consumption. The next steps are to get involved in cleanups, get involved in campaigns to eliminate problem products, and demand that companies take responsibility for their products post consumer. There is a lot to be hopeful about, even if the real solutions don’t appear real sexy. But with engagement, en masse, there is light at the end of the sewer pipe. Unfortunately with Slat’s idea, I see only wasted resources and more ocean garbage in the making.
What’s Up for Slat Now?
His project received a huge amount of media coverage, although scientists and professional ocean activists question the feasibility of the design. Now Slat has turned to crowd-funding website Indiegogo seeking to raise $80,000 for a feasibility study. In the young inventor’s own words, “I don’t know if it’s possible, and that’s exactly the reason I’m doing it.”
Slat’s study would draw upon a team of students, engineers, oceanographers and industry experts to investigate whether his proposed Ocean Cleanup Array would be capable of removing vast amounts of plastic from the oceans.
Slat’s floating array is designed to capture plastic as it circulates through ocean gyres. Slat’s Indiegogo campaign is offering gifts based upon donations – for example, if you donate a $1, you receive a thank you and a digital summary of the study. However those that donate $500 or more will get a social media shout out and their name featured on the pilot vessel.
If you wondering what the $80,000 will go towards, Slat states that it will cover all estimated costs to scientifically prove the concept’s feasibility.”Our research includes 35 research topics in the fields of engineering, oceanography, (geo)physics, ecology, finance, maritime law and recycling.” In addition to pursuing a research budget, Slat adds that “by finishing this all-important study, we can continue with an open ocean pilot, followed by the actual full-scale execution of The Ocean Cleanup.”
So that’s how this story goes now.
Hope they both find a solution in their ways and help the world out. Kudos to both their Attempts and we wish them all success.
Courtesy & Sources : Google, BoyanSlat.com, 5Gyres.Org, InHabitat.com, Whydontyoutrythis.com
- Could a teenager save the world’s oceans? Student, 19, claims his invention could clean up the seas in just five years (dailymail.co.uk)
- The Ocean Cleanup Project (lightmsgs.wordpress.com)
- Ingenious 19-year-old Develops Plan to Clean up Oceans in 5 Years (trueactivist.com)
- Why Plastic Bags Are Bad (rent.com)
- who’s heard of the great pacific garbage patch? (savingthewaves.wordpress.com)
- The Invention That Solves Plastic Pollution in the Pacific (classwarfareexists.com)
- Teaching Our Children to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rebuy (everydayhealth.com)