A skinny young man with a mop of dark hair takes the stage at a 2012 TEDx event. His name is Boyan Slat and he’s on a mission to rid the ocean of plastic. The audience listens in rapt silence as 18 year-old Slat lays out his concept for a device that captures plastic garbage passively before diverting it into a collector using the ocean’s currents.
Maps of the five gyres—massive current systems that circulate water in the major oceans—flash on the screen. The goal, Slat explains, is eventually to clean all the oceans, starting with the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch," a stew of nearly two trillion pieces of plastic swirling endlessly around an area of about 15 million square kilometres.
The video immediately went viral, racking up millions of views. The toxicity of YouTube commenter culture was largely drowned out by cries of “Why aren’t we funding this?!” As if in response, a crowdfunding campaign launched several months later netted about 2 million dollars in 100 days. The Ocean Cleanup Project was born.
Seven years later, Slat is a Thiel Fellow, a UN Champion of the Earth and a media darling. He has the backing of the Dutch government and powerful private investors including the CEO of Salesforce. His nonprofit has approximately $35 million (£27 million) in funding. And yet, when the Ocean Cleanup Project finally launched its first prototype—a 2000-foot U-shaped boom called Wilson—into the North Pacific Gyre last September, it largely failed to collect plastic.
For Slat, this was a minor setback, “teething troubles” that would be overcome with a better system. While a spokesperson for Ocean Cleanup did not tell us what specifically that better system might look like, the company plans to release a fleet of 60 of them. Despite its recent failure, it estimates these collectors will trap half the plastic in the North Pacific Gyre in five years.
“We’re all convinced we’re doing the right thing,” said Ocean Cleanup COO Lonneke Holierhoek.
But many scientists aren’t so sure. For years, researchers and ocean plastic activists had been warning that The Ocean Cleanup Project’s fundamental assumptions were misguided. Instead of testing those assumptions in smaller, more controlled experiments, oceanographers and marine engineers claim that The Ocean Cleanup Project rushed to launch build and launch prototypes. Their concerns, however, have gone largely unheeded by award committees, The Ocean Cleanup Project, and the mainstream press.
“There wasn’t much consultation with marine engineers,” said Peter Stoett, Dean and Professor of Social Science and Humanities at University of Ontario Institute of Technology and marine policy researcher. “But it looked cool.”
Wilson’s troubles began soon after its launch from San Francisco. Plastic quickly started spilling out the boom system. Often, the currents were such that free-floating plastic aggregated on the outside of the system. Over a three month voyage, Wilson collected 500 kilograms (1,110 pounds) of plastic, said Holierhoek. A ship stationed to monitor the device, meanwhile, collected 1500 kilograms (3,300 pounds) by extracting driftnets from the ocean. (To be fair, a ship requires a human crew, while Wilson is supposed to collect plastic autonomously.)
By December, a 60-foot chunk of the boom had broken off in calm seas due to “material fatigue.” Wilson the garbage collector was now ocean garbage. Shortly after New Years, the system was limping back to Hawaii for repairs.
In hindsight, these issues were predictable, according to Craig McClain, Executive Director of the Louisiana University Marine Consortium in the US, who called the entire endeavour a “boondoggle” in a recent article in Deep Sea News. McClain noted that a pair of oceanographers, Kim Martini and Miriam Goldstein, pointed to possible structural flaws with the boom system in a detailed peer review of the Ocean Cleanup Project’s plans back in 2014.
“There wasn’t much consultation with marine engineers. But it looked cool.”
In that same review, Martini and Goldstein also cited inadequacy in the initial prototype testing, and noted that the project hadn’t adequately considered how fish or plankton would be affected. (The Ocean Cleanup has since conducted an environmental impact assessment of its system.) Martini and Goldstein recommended that the project extensively test the smaller prototype system before scaling up.
“The only response we got from Cleanup was that we were not engineers,” said Goldstein, who spent years on the Pacific studying ocean plastic and plankton before becoming Marine Policy Director for the Center for American Progress. Martini, a physical oceanographer who specialises in designing scientific instruments to survive at sea, offered an even blunter assessment.
“They just blew us off,” she said.
A spokesperson for Ocean Cleanup said that the organisation takes criticisms seriously. “We’ve taken it so seriously that the design is completely different,” the spokesperson said. Indeed, the group has updated its initial design extensively from the 2012 concept of a moored, manta ray-shaped microplastic collection installation. The current system, which was modified after extensive testing, floats freely, and is much smaller than the device originally proposed.
Regarding the criticism that the organisation has rushed to develop prototypes, The Ocean Cleanup emphasised that there is “no time to lose.”
“The time to act is now,” the spokesperson said. “So we move as fast as responsibly possible, and are transparent about what we are doing.”
But Martini and Goldstein aren’t the only scientists who feel their concerns went unheeded. Nor has critique been limited to structural issues, but whether the proposed system could collect plastic at all. When shark conservationist David Shiffman asked 15 self-selected ocean plastic pollution experts for their take on the project, most voiced major reservations about its effectiveness. Experts doubted that the design could capture plastic, or avoid harming wildlife.
The fundamental issue at hand is that cleaning up ocean plastic pollution is complex. Intuitively it should work like a park cleanup, except one where the trash is in constant motion, where waves, wind and sun conspire to break much of the litter down into microscopic fragments, and where storms and wind have churned garbage hundreds of metres below the surface. According to a 2015 study, only a tiny fraction of the plastic at sea is actually floating on the surface where floating booms can corral it.
“Everyone knows how to pick up litter,” said Goldstein, “but how do you do that over thousands of miles on a surface that heaves 30 feet up and down?”
The Ocean Cleanup Project’s own published research acknowledges that most plastic isn’t on the surface, but the organisation contends that surface plastics are are doing the most harm and deserve attention. There is some merit to that claim: Ocean Cleanup’s study found that 46 per cent of floating plastic is actually discarded maritime equipment, including deadly driftnets. Holierhoek, COO of Ocean Cleanup, says that their project is just one part of a broader solution.
On the other hand, it’s also possible going after the estimated 1 per cent of ocean plastic that lingers at the surface might do more harm than good.
The surface of the Pacific Ocean is home to a mysterious community of floating life, called neuston. Like floating plastic, the neuston is largely at the mercy of wind and waves. Floating lawns of blue buttons feed hungry, nocturnal fish and paper nautiluses. Tiny, “blue dragon” sea slugs feed on jellyfish. Anemones, barnacles and snails drift on bubbles, sometimes in giant rafts. Many also happen to superficially resemble and act like drifting plastics.
Unlike plastic, these animals are delicate. They may not survive contact with a Wilson-style plastic collector. Given the neuston’s role as a nursery for certain fish and the fact that it exists within a complex, pelagic food chain, damage to it could ripple across ecosystems and ultimately, to our dinner plates. Rebecca Helm, a marine biologist specialising in jellyfish, found it troubling that the neuston was not explicitly called out in The Ocean Cleanup’s environmental impact assessment.
“By omitting the neuston from its assessment, the project is overlooking the habitat it could be impacting most, and there is no sense of what the damage might be,” Helm wrote in a recent article in the Atlantic, adding that the ocean gyres where neustonic ecosystems develop are likely to be “precisely where” The Ocean Cleanup plans to deploy its devices.
“The time to act is now.”
“We can’t clean ocean plastic in spite of the animals where the plastic is,” said Helm.
In response to Helm’s criticisms, The Ocean Cleanup published a blog post noting that a number of neuston species are included in its environmental impact assessment, including certain types of jellies.The Ocean Cleanup emphasised the “ubiquitous” nature of these species, however, the papers it cites to support that claim do not focus on the North Pacific and actually show the opposite. The organisation added it plans to “study the interaction between the system and the local environment” before scaling up.
While The Ocean Cleanup’s current environmental impact assessment covers a single device, it said that it is planning to do a larger environmental impact assessment before scaling up.
Perhaps the biggest concern for ocean plastic advocates is that the focus on entrepreneurial technological solutions like this is ultimately a distraction. Ocean plastics researchers and advocates are pushing to stop plastic from ever reaching the water. The EU just unanimously passed a ban on single-use plastics like cutlery or takeout containers. Zero-waste initiatives have seen massive success in The Philippines. Global beach cleanups and harbour cleanups have prevented millions of tons of plastic from reaching the deep sea.
“The real fight,” said Marcus Eriksen, an ocean plastic scientist at the nonprofit organisation The 5 Gyres Institute, “Is pushing for zero waste, good sorting, and reducing single use plastics. A shift to a circular economy.”
Asked to respond to the criticism that The Ocean Cleanup ignores the underlying problems of plastic overproduction and waste mismanagement and that technological solutionism might create an excuse for these problems to persist, Holierhoek said she didn’t recognise that line of reasoning “at all.”
“Presenting a problem in a way that includes a solution is far more positive than blaming capitalism without a solution attached to it,” Holierhoek said. “It’s very complicated to abandon capitalism. I think technology can really help in a lot of the bad things that we have done to ourselves and our planet if applied responsibly.”
In spite of the criticisms and setbacks, the Ocean Cleanup plans to go back out and try again. The organisation stated it would be conducting a technical assessment of Wilson’s failure, and hopes to relaunch in a year.
It isn’t hard to see why The Ocean Cleanup took off. Slat’s initial pitch was full of homespun earnestness, from kids centrifuging samples of water to separate plastic from plankton to kids paddling surfboards while dragging nets. And the company’s subsequent growth shares plenty of elements with other Silicon Valley success stories: A “revolutionary” technology; a wunderkind dropout inventor; a savvy marketing campaign; entrepreneurship with a soul.
But the same buzz that secured Ocean Cleanup a network of powerful backers might ultimately be its undoing. Eriksen, who used to work with Ocean Cleanup on scientific research projects in the past but is now openly critical of their approach, noted that while scepticism grew, The Ocean Cleanup Project simply chugged along, collecting donations from corporate sponsors and environmental awards for a promise they probably couldn’t keep.
“If you take that much money from people you’re compelled to deliver,” Eriksen said. “He [Slat] is stuck.”
Vincent Gabrielle is a freelance science journalist based in Boston.