Ocean scientists say 19-year-old's "realistic" plan to clean up the ocean isn't actually realistic

Earlier this week, Jason told you about a TEDx talk in which 19-year-old Boyan Slat presents a plan to remove plastic from the world's oceans. Lots of people are excited about this, which is reasonable. Particulate plastic in the ocean is a big problem that has, thus far, evaded any reasonable clean-up plans. There's just so much of it, it's so tiny, and the ocean is, you know, kind of huge. If a kid can come up with a plan that works, it would be fantastic. Unfortunately, the ocean scientists at Deep Sea News say Slat's system isn't as simple and practical as he thinks it is. Among the many problems: Slat's plan would catch (and kill) as many vitally important plankton as pieces of plastic, and it calls for mooring plastic-collecting ships in the open ocean where the water is 2000 meters deeper than the deepest mooring ever recorded. Here's a mantra to remember: TED Talks — interesting if true.


  1. This article summary hews pretty close to @jandrese’s comments from the previous thread on this project, so I can honestly say s/he told me so, and officially retract my defensive, snarky comments. 

    Well, at least we can hope this gets the conversation started about what parts of Slat’s system might work, and what the realistic solutions are that are out there.

    1. Couldn’t we just listen to people more qualified without being distracted by harmful suggestions to begin with? “Simple” solutions to environmental problems have been harmful for the world, no matter how sincerely practiced.

      Trying to pick the kernels of truth out of TEDx talks seems a waste of time unless your primary goal is to feel “inspired”.

      1. The Clean Air Act is quite simple in many ways, and highly effective.  That $2 filter gizzy that gives clean water to isolated African people is incredibly simple.  I wouldn’t write off simplicity just yet.

        1. I believe C W was drawing a distinction between the simple solution arrived at by someone who knows what they’re talking about as opposed to someone who doesn’t.

    2. Not put crap in the ocean in the first place? It might not sound like a solution, but when you have microparticles spread out over a large and pretty deep area in the middle of a huge ocean… I don’t think there are any realistic solutions for cleaning it up.

    3. Don’t worry about it.  The idea the kid had wasn’t all bad, but he was just totally off on the scale of the project and the costs involved.  As humans it is easy to forget just how tiny we are on this world, and how even our biggest vehicles/buildings are absolutely tiny in comparison to everything around us.  If you want to get a sense of scale, go visit the Hoover Dam or Panama Canal or even the Great Wall of China some other megaproject and then pull it up on Google Earth and see just how tiny the thing is compared to the land around it.

      Getting a sense of scale is difficult, especially when you’re talking about entire oceans, it’s just not something people have experience with.  The only major world scale projects humans have ever accomplished are road, rail, power, and telecommunication systems, and those all have the property that they can be built piecemeal over decades and centuries. 

      1. It’s still hard for me to imagine that humans can be so numerous, so *busy* that our earthmoving can outdo wind and water and seismic events… I can sort-of-sympathize with those who find it implausible that we have  significantly altered the entire gas balance of the atmosphere. The world seems so big, and each individual one of us feels so small.

         Accidental hugeness makes more sense to me- we achieve influence as a side effect- than deliberately setting out to build something global in its impact. Besides, in order to deliberately impact the earth in a big way, we’d have to outcompete many other less ambitious goals.

        1. One thing I like to remember when talking about climate change is to remember that a person who drives a mere 15,000 miles per year (the US nationwide average) in a 25MPG car (a number I pulled out of my butt) will burn 600 gallons of gas.  When you work the chemistry, each gallon of gas burned releases 14 pounds of CO2, meaning that average American release 4.1 tons of CO2 each year.  Multiply this by 310 million, and we’re suddenly talking about 1.3 BILLION TONS of CO2 from a single year.  And this is only the US, it doesn’t even begin to count for the other 6.66 billion people on the planet.  Nor does it count CO2 from non-automotive sources (power plants for example). 

          While this is a tiny fraction of the atmosphere (total mass somewhere around 5×10^15 metric tons), it’s still an enormous amount of gas and unfortunately the heat trapping effects of CO2 become noticeable when it is still down in the parts per million range.  Also, this is yet another megaproject that is only possible because the individual pieces can be done independently and accumulate over time.

          1. My understanding of the statistic is that most drivers go more than 15,000 miles per year, but the average is brought down by all of the nondrivers.  I might be wrong though, I didn’t look too closely at the number.

  2. The plankton thing is a bit of a straw man. Phytoplankton especially is an eminently renewable resource. If we want to offset plankton loss with growth, that’s very easy.
    I’m just glad someone is thinking about a mega-engineering solution to the problem, rather than hand-wringing and insisting that the problem is unsolvable. Humans are really good at mega-engineering.
    Is this the solution? No, probably not. Does the solution look something like this? Perhaps. I don’t understand why people get angry when a flawed solution is presented… at least this has people thinking about a problem that’s been essentially ignored for years.

  3. Here’s a mantra to remember: TED Talks — interesting if true.

    That goes double for TEDx, which TED hasn’t done a very good job of keeping tabs on to keep out obvious pseudoscience (or “pseudoengineering” in this case, maybe)–there’s an interesting article on this, When TED Lost Control of Its Crowd. As an example, a few months ago I came across an entertaining but very fringey talk about “native american giants” and a conspiracy at the Smithsonian to cover them up–unfortunately the video has been taken off the internet but you can read the letter the TEDx showrunner sent to the presenter, which discusses some of his claims, here.

  4. If there were a way to make these bits of plastic *sink*, that might be almost as good as pulling them out of the water. Cheaper, too.

    1. Maybe, maybe not. We are only beginning to understand the ecosystems at the bottom of the ocean and the role they play in the larger scheme of things. Just because we can’t see what pollution is doing down there doesn’t necessarily mean it’s less destructive than it is up here.

    2. “If there were a way to make these bits of plastic *sink*, that might be almost as good as pulling them out of the water. Cheaper, too.”

      And what would that process do to every single part of our ocean that’s not plastic?

  5. I think this highlights a greater issue — visibility is so easy now via these here interwebs, and because there are so many proposals out there that will solve some of the world’s problems, people haven’t got the time or energy to properly subject anything to real critical review until days later after it’s gone “viral”. It’s both a blessing and a curse I guess.  

    This one in particular, in the abstract context, it’s a great concept. The devil is certainly in the details, but the effort should be applauded.

  6. I am genuinely puzzled as to why TED seems bound and determined to destroy their own brand, and make themselves laughingstocks. How hard would it have been to run the talk past some ocean scientists BEFORE approving it?

    1. TEDx, not TED. There are very loose standards for TEDx, which means that TED is giving away it’s brand to (practically, it seems) anyone who asks, a very bad plan. It’s like if Coca-Cola gave supermarkets licenses to label their own no-name cola “Coca-ColaX”.

    2. Haven’t you noticed that an ‘expand or die’ mindset has taken over the world? Or maybe has always been there.

        1. I was thinking of local stores/ restaurants/ clubs that open a second location and go under within six months. It happens a lot.

          1. Yeah. That. It’s not the purple so much as it’s the opacity. It looks more like toothpaste than ketchup.

      1. Expand . . . and in doing so, destroy everything that made our brand valuable in the first place. That’s solid business sense.

  7. Ask the dolphins to do it. Give them herring per kg of plastic. When we run out of herring, give them kittens.

  8. Came for the depressing admonishment of a kid trying to make the world a better place, even if he didn’t have the details all worked out. Left satisfied.

  9. And Slat’s plastic-gathering platform in the slick drawings that accompany the talk 

    is made of 

    What? Plastic?

    1. Yes. In fact, he plans to zip tie a makerbot to his first prototype so that as it gathers enough plastic it can just print the next one, etc.

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