19 year old develops plan to clean up ocean trash vortexes

Inhabitat shares the story of Boyan Slat, a 19 year old who seems hell-bent on cleaning up 7.25M tons of trash from our oceans. He started with a research paper in school, which won several awards. Next, Slat developed a floating array of booms and garbage processing plants which he presented at TedxDelft last year, and now he's created a foundation to produce these technologies.

From Inhabitat:

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.


  1. Cool. . .  and if the eco-cleaning thing falls through, he could use it as a base of operations for a Captain Nemo-style plan of world conquest.

    1. As a kid my favorite movie was 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea…but I never could understand why Professor Arronax, Ned Land, and Conseil wanted to leave.

  2. I’m glad he discusses financing the profit by selling the trash. The idea that it could fund itself by “saving millions per year, both in clean-up costs, lost tourism and damage to marine vessels” would have been far too idealistic — no individual ever sponsors clean-up of the Commons, even if (or especially because) everyone gains.

    1. The problem is that the average size of a particle in the great ocean garbage patch is 20 microns.  Simply filtering out the different kinds of plastic so they can be recycled would be nearly impossible, even if plastic recycling was highly profitable.  You would probably have to centrifuge it and extract the plastic type by layers, but that’s energy intensive.

      My guess is that the author is in for a bit of a rude awakening if he gets the funds and actually runs his feasibility study. 

  3. At first I was dubious, but after reading the site I can say that this is total bullshit.  The concept is to tether the device to the ocean floor in a fairly deep part of the ocean.  Then passively filter the often microscopic plastic particles out of the ocean using the power of only a tiny solar panel and “ocean currents”.  The most amazing part is that they think that the recycling rate on plastic is so good that this incredibly expensive operation will be profitable!  The cost to ship the plastic to the shore alone will be more than you’ll get for recycling it. 

    Plus he has not even considered that in his zeal to remove the “navigation hazards” of the microscopic plastic particles, he’s adding gigantic booms to the ocean that ships will collide with.

    There is no discussion of what process he is going to use to filter out the plastic without also scrubbing the oceans clean of microorganisms as well. 

    1. The other issue is how to remove the debris that is in the water column, not just the surface.

    2. It’s very possible that the discussion isn’t complete or deep enough, but it’s inaccurate to say “there is no discussion”. Look at the foundation’s website section “In Depth”, and scroll down to “How is plastic separated from marine life”.

      There’s also a handy little graphic and description of how the devices would theoretically remain clear of ships passing through.

      Also putting “ocean currents” in quotation marks as if this is a fictional concept invented by a dutch kid makes your whole comment itself a bit dubious…

      1. The quotes were in reference to extracting useful amounts of power from ocean currents. 

        His “plan” for separating out the marine life is to assume that the life won’t get caught up in the filter, or maybe centrifuges somehow if that doesn’t work.

        His plan to leave gaps in the platforms is also doomed to failure when you consider the number of shipping accidents every year. It’s really depressing how many people crash multimillion dollar ships every year, and these bouys will be out in the middle of the ocean where people won’t even be thinking about collisions.

        His idea that he’ll have made a dent in the 100 million tons of plastic found in just one patch in 5 years with a small number of boats is pretty nutty too. He would need a fleet of cargo ships just hauling the stuff away constantly to keep up if he were getting even 1% of the garbage out.

  4. What ever happened to that scientist who came up with a reverse process to convert plastic waste to oil? My process would use this technologyand to take unused super tankers and convert them to reverse oil refineries.
    Collect  the waste plastic, process it and store the recycled oil in the tanks to be shipped back for use.
    Over time that should diminish the plastic waste and give back needed resources.

  5. Why is the fact that he’s 19 worth noting? At that point he’s in college, he should be thinking in novel ways. 

    1. 19 would be really young to manage a massive project like this.  That custom ship would easily run into the tens of millions of dollars, probably hundreds of millions, not counting running costs (like the crew!). 

      1. That’s nothing. I was planning interplanetary warfare by the time I was 10. That takes serious manpower and funding.

        1.  Totally. I had plans. BIG plans (and, possibly, too many EE ‘Doc’ Smith books…).

      2. I fully understand the cost and complexities of a business. But my point still stands. The exceptional part is that he’s new at this, not that he’s 19.

  6. I’m an eternal optimist.  My takeaway here is that technology is putting more and more ideas within reach, and I’ll be an Easter Bunny if I had spent more than 1 nanosecond considering the resolution of this issue.  I’m a bit of a waterman, so I am humbled.

    Youth breeds wild ideas.  As tech comes down in price, and accessibility, more and more of those ideas are going to become realities.

    That’s amazeballs.

  7. They seems to be a lot of “this can’t be a perfect and complete solution, thus it should not be even tried” vibe in the comments here, which is lousy. This will only even be part of the solution, if it works, but part-solution is better than what we are doing now, which largely amounts to saying “Have you seen the plastic heap in the North Pacific Gyre, wow it sure is huge.”

    1. Yes, at least he’s trying and should be given credit for that. Considering the myriad global environmental catastrophes we have to contend with, it’s great that young people continue to seek solutions when older generations just throw up their arms and accept these situations as the new normal.

    2. They seems to be a lot of “this can’t be a perfect and complete solution, thus it should not be even tried” vibe in the comments here, which is lousy.

      It’s called the Nirvana Fallacy. Armchair critics live for it.

    3. I was going to comment about the fact that it’s really unlikely even to make up part of the solution, but honestly, it is better than no idea and if anything will be possible, it will have to be along the same lines using passive collecting methods. You might need to have huge numbers of ships taking the plastic away with little benefit from recycling (if there were, you probably would have more people saving the plastic and not throwing it into the ocean in the first place), but if the collection method worked at all then even compacting and sinking the plastic would be better than the situation you have right now. If the system could be anchored in an optimal area, you wouldn’t actually need it to be too big to have an effect over a much larger section of the ocean, as the fact that it is a vortex would be working in your favour.

      Another criticism that people had was that you would be likely to collect a lot of microorganisms in addition to the plastic. I’m not sure to what extent this is true, but it seems these areas are pretty much dead zones anyway, so the damage has already been done in that regard and this method would be unlikely to damage the remaining ecosystem in the same way as it would in other areas.

      1.  Regarding recyclability, I’ve done several beach cleans here in Japan, and we’re told by the city not to sort plastic separately, as it’s too damaged by water to be recycled.  They just say sort the soft plastic (wrappers, bottles, etc.) with the burnable garbage, and hard plastic goes to a landfill somewhere.

  8. I see here that one of the issues besides the sheer immensity of the amount of garbage is that much of it has broken down into tiny particles.

    Surely there must be some sort of bonding agent that we can pour into the ocean to meld the polymers into a more manageable clump…

    Then burn it.

  9. This is the sort of thing I’d expect to see on the cover of popular science. Expensive, flashy, heroic- and in all likelihood  completely unfeasible  But it’s way sexier to look at it this way, than the non-sexy, hardly futuristic strategy of not putting the plastic in the ocean to begin with. (how many of these things really require plastic over all other materials?)

    1. there are already billions of tons of plastic floating in the gyres.

      whether or not avoiding adding plastic to the ocean is more or less sexy than this sort of thing is totally irrelevant to the problem of how (if) to clean up the existing mess.

      1.  I disagree. If you try to clean up the existing mess without addressing the ongoing problem, then your project serves to justify and perpetuate the behaviors that caused the problem in the first place.

         Same goes for strategies to artificially sequester carbon: unless they also address some of the ongoing carbon release, they serve to justify continued atmosphere abuse.

        1. i didn’t say that anybody should suggest doing one without the other. i was noting that the approach to cleaning up is really totally independent of the (necessary, sensible) effort to stop dumping plastic.

  10. Marine debris scientists weight in and discuss why this cannot work and why it could even do more harm than good.  

    On a related note, scientists who study the trash gyres have discussed again and again (see that last link!) that the biggest difficulty, even if we could engineer something to capture all of the plastic, is that it will likely have enormous consequences on the life in the ocean.  Separating microscopic plastic particles from zooplankton is highly likely to harm the zooplankton.  And let’s not even get into large fragile gelatinous zooplankton.  Or fish.  Or anything else that lives out there and would have to be ‘sifted’ out. Most solutions proposed so far do are likely to do more harm than good.

    I salute this kid for thinking big, and hope that he goes on to a glorious career in science.  But, just remember, folks, technology cannot cure all of the problems we create.  It’s unfortunate, but sometimes true. Better to address things at the source!

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