Boyan Slat looks tired.
Still slightly sodden after taking refuge from the winter downpour in the Helijet offices on the shores of Vancouver Harbour, the raw-boned 25-year-old Dutchman sinks back in a chair for the latest of his extended one-on-one interviews of the day.
The entrepreneur-environmentalist still has the same shaggy haircut he had in 2012, when, as a fresh-faced teenager, he gave his revelatory 2012 TEDx talk in his hometown of Delft, outlining his ambitious plan to cleanse the world’s oceans of plastic.
The viral video thrust him into the international spotlight, but the nervous excitement and youthful enthusiasm he exuded on stage has been ground away over the past 7½ years, eroded by harsh criticism, gleeful celebrations of the project’s very public failures, and an unexpected magnitude of complexity to the problem.
“I aged quickly — in multiple ways,” he said, laughing softly. “But also I’ve learned a lot. I really didn’t know what I was doing at the start, but definitely learned that things are much more difficult than we ever could have imagined, and that it would take more people and resources to make it happen.”
Slat was the original millennial environmental star — think Greta Thunberg minus the outrage — his simple, elegant plan to skim plastic pollution with floating booms capturing the public’s imagination.
After seven years, the Ocean Cleanup project has finally borne fruit: a harvest of 60 one-cubic-metre bags of plastic collected from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The organization put the haul of marine waste, which included fishing nets, lures and plastic trash, on display in Vancouver last month. Its next step is to study the feasibility of recycling the plastic into sellable retail items, with the ultimate goal of using the proceeds to fund the continued cleanup of the ocean.
“It was a long journey, but it was also a relief to see that first plastic being caught,” said Slat. “Going from zero to 1, it’s not just a promise anymore — it’s possible.”
The plastics problem
There are, by some estimates, about 150 million tonnes of plastic floating around the world’s oceans, with at least nine million tonnes added each year. Former federal environment minister Catherine McKenna predicted the total tonnage could outweigh all the fish in the world by 2050.
Around 96,000 tonnes of that plastic is spinning in circles in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, one of five global “gyres” — current- and wind-driven vortices that have become accumulation points for floating marine debris.
The Great Pacific is the largest of the five. If you were to drive its circumference at 100 km/h, it would take you 45 hours to complete the trip, or roughly the distance of driving from Vancouver to Montreal.
Slat’s plan is to use a fleet of autonomous, floating U-shaped booms that would aggregate the floating plastic, removing 50 per cent of the Patch’s surface plastic in five years and 90 per cent by 2040.
The Ocean Cleanup project moved its base to Vancouver from San Francisco last year, launching its latest prototype — System 001/B — from Campbell River. The 400-foot prototype is a scaled-down version of the planned booms, which will be 2,000 feet long, outfitted with GPS, environmental sensors, running lights and solar panels. Every six weeks, a boat would collect any harvested plastic from the booms.
The organization reportedly went through 273 models and six prototypes in the five years before System 001 — a.k.a. “Wilson” — was deployed for testing in 2018. It broke up in the rough seas, with the lessons learned being applied to the more successful System 001/B.
Once marine testing resumes later this year, the organization plans to continue to work out of Vancouver, where System 002 will be constructed.
The development and construction of the first full-sized array, which broke apart in heavy seas last January, cost around US$23 million, though the Ocean Cleanup project says manufacturing multiple booms will cost about $6 million each.
There are more than 80 scientists, engineers, computational modellers and researchers on the project, along with support staff that includes social media managers, accountants, lawyers, business development and fundraising analysts.
Slat’s idea hasn’t just captured the imagination of the public, it’s ensnared their wallets, too.
Since 2014, Ocean Cleanup project has raised more than $117 million Cdn. — the vast majority of the money coming from individual and corporate donations — including $45.5 million in 2015 alone. Projected income for 2019 was estimated to be around $27.5 million.
The small-scale success of the most recent version of the Ocean Cleanup array isn’t quite proof of concept, but it shows the booms can collect plastic waste.
But the unanswered question remains: Should they?
Scouring the oceans of plastic — and life?
From the very beginning, ocean experts have been waving caution flags about the project. As recently as last year, David Shiffman, a marine conservation biologist and former post-doctorate researcher at SFU, reached out to more than 50 experts in the field while writing an article about it.
Dr. Rebecca Helm, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina Asheville, wrote an article for The Atlantic detailing her concerns about the project’s potential impact on floating marine life. It prompted a blog-post rebuttal from Slat.
Ocean Cleanup has published an environmental impact assessment — based on previous versions of the boom — and says the potential impact on marine life will be minimal.
Helm was quick to dispute the claim using one of the project’s own press photos that she said showed a massive amount of bycatch.
“Part of what has been frustrating for me in trying to raise awareness of these ecosystems that are out there is just the public perception of what they think is happening versus what I know is happening,” said Helm. “There are so many misperceptions flying around.
“The Ocean Cleanup modelled their design off of systems to catch jellyfish and oil. It’s really a perfect design to catch floating jellyfish, which is exactly what they caught in that press photo that they released. They’re surprised that they’ve caught animals, but their whole system was fundamentally designed to catch animals.
“Some people say to me, ‘Well, they published a feasibility study.’ But then I point out that was based on a completely different iteration than the one they’re using,” Helm continued. “Along with that … what are some of the consequences of doing this cleanup? Particularly on free-floating surface organisms. They have very deliberately said that they don’t believe there will be any. And they’ve been critical of other scientists who speculated that there might be.
“It all comes down to this concept: A lack of evidence of impacts is not the same thing as evidence of a lack of impact. Just because we don’t know doesn’t mean there won’t be.”
While pictures of dead whales and seabirds with stomachs full of plastic are powerful, few people spare much thought to planktonic or micro-sized marine life.
The demographic of those who have embraced the project skews young — the social media contest to name the initial prototype inevitably resulted in it being named Boomy McBoomface (Boom Harder) — and the momentum it’s gained on both mainstream and social media channels makes it hard for scientists to compete against.
It’s a far cry from turning into the infamous Fyre Festival, the disastrous, social–media-fuelled music festival that wound up being cancelled, but Ocean Cleanup has shown how an image and idea, once entrenched and reinforced in social media, can gloss over logistical realities.
And despite saying criticism is welcomed, Ocean Cleanup has a combative relationship with many leading experts. Several academics contacted for this story declined to comment because of an expected backlash.
“There is a huge and active community of academics and campaign activists collaborating on solutions to marine debris all over the world. And the Ocean Cleanup is not an active part of that discussion,” said Karen Wristen, executive director of Living Oceans, a Vancouver Island-based organization that runs projects around marine and ocean conservation.
“When people have reached out to them to point out some of the problems with their concept, they’ve been … unreceptive, and pursued their same strategy over and over again, with the same result.
“There’s a lot of money at stake, and whenever there’s is huge investment at stake, there’s a huge need to demonstrate some progress. And I think that’s the trap this project fell into very early on. Having attracted so much money, it was too big to fail.”
Life’s a beach
The name — the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — is a misleading one. The unintentional misnomer gives the impression of a vast floating raft of plastic detritus with everything from discarded toys and office chairs to water bottles. But you could sail through the area without seeing any of that “macro” waste.
But five metres below the surface, it’s a blizzard of microplastics — fragments of larger items that have broken down — that are suspended in the ocean. French national Ben Lecomte swam through the area last year to raise awareness of the problem, and he described the experience like “looking up at the skies on a snowy day — but in reverse.”
Of the roughly nine million tonnes of plastic that end up in the ocean each year, just 269,000 tonnes float on the surface, which is what the Ocean Cleanup is targeting. Approximately half of the Great Pacific patch is “macroplastic” waste, like “ghost nets” — discarded or lost fishing gear — but the micro and nanoplastics, now pervasive in the food chain, won’t be dented by Ocean Cleanup’s efforts.
Ocean Cleanup officials couldn’t give definitive answers for how many booms would be deployed, how long they would be deployed, or how they would be supported. Nor could they say if the plastic collected — some floating in the ocean since the 1970s, being degraded by ultraviolet rays and ocean currents — could be turned into a usable product.
The plastic may be suitable only for incineration in power plants — a process with risks of its own.
With the critical questions about marine life endangerment and the efficacy of their system still unanswered, it’s small wonder ocean conservation experts continue to question the project, especially when lower-cost solutions exist. In July, the Ocean Voyages Institute hauled 40 tons of trash from the Pacific patch in July using a sail-driven trawler, satellite imagery and drones.
And the Great Pacific patch, as worrying as it is, only represents one per cent of the plastic in the world’s oceans. The Ocean Cleanup project’s own data shows that 97 per cent of plastic from coastal sources — which makes up 80 per cent of the total that ends up in the ocean — is beached within a year, meaning the best way to tackle the problem is closer to the shore.
Ocean Cleanup introduced the River Interceptor earlier this year, an autonomous, solar-powered device aimed at removing plastics from 1,000 of the world’s most polluted rivers, those identified as feeding the most plastic waste into the ocean. A slicker, more futuristic version of Baltimore’s beloved Mr. Trash Wheel, it’s the organization’s shift to trying to turn off the figurative tap on an overflowing sink, rather than mopping the floor in a Sisyphean task.
“We started solely concentrating on cleaning up the Garbage Patch because we felt it was the most neglected part of the spectrum of solutions,” said Slat. “There are already dozens of organizations working on trying to prevent plastic from going into the ocean, through advocacy, education, awareness, all great work, yet nobody was addressing the stock of existing pollution. We felt that we could make the biggest impact by addressing the most neglected aspect.
“Then after a few years we realized that … judging by the (lack of) progress on the prevention side, it wasn’t going to be fast enough. If that wasn’t being dealt with, we could continue to scoop plastic out of the patch forever.”
And while governments are recognizing the scope of the issue and beginning to take steps like banning plastic bags or single-use plastics, the plastics industry expects to increase production by 40 per cent by 2028.
People taking responsibility for stewardship of their local areas “is the only answer to saving life in the ocean,” said Wristen.
“And that’s everywhere. The ocean is downhill from everywhere, so anything you drop is going to wind up there eventually,” she added, saying getting companies to be more invested in the cradle-to-grave lifespan of their products also plays a significant role.
“The plastics industry has stated its intention to turn the tap on twice as much as it is now — particularly in North America. That just can’t be allowed to happen,” she said. “Plastics have their use — I don’t vilify them by any means. You can’t go through a day without depending on plastic. But we need to rethink where we’re using them and how we’re dealing with them at the end of their useful lifespan.”