In 2012 a spunky Dutch teenager proposed a unique solution to the pollution of the oceans. In a TED talk, 18 year old Boyan Slat presented his deceptively simple solution: a huge net to collect the debris and plastic floating around the oceans.

The Need

Greenpeace estimates 10% of the 100,000 million tonnes of plastic manufactured each year ends up in the world’s oceans. A 2014 study by non-profit environmental advocacy group 5 Gyres reported there are 269,000 tons of plastic alone spread out throughout the oceans.

A previous study had estimated 3.5 million tonnes of debris overall.

This pollution is dangerous to fish, birds and marine animals. Some debris causes strangulation, birth defects, disease and even death. The need for pollution control is well documented and accepted, but the methods to use are debated.

The Idea

ocean clean up idea
Slat’s idea was borne of his environmentalism and aerospace engineering studies. His impassioned plea to the scientific community was well received as he suggested it was time to “do something.” The idea formed around a giant net anchored into the seabed and floating. As debris travels around in the water it will eventually encounter the net and be caught. In effect, Slat said, the ocean would self-clean this way, and he suggested it was possible to see cleaned oceans in five years. After proposing the idea and showing prototypes of the design, Slat received positive support but then also received strong critique. Slat took time off from promoting the idea to begin a non-profit to support the work and obtain independent feasibility studies of the project.

ocean clean up idea

The Project

The feasibility studies have finally given the green light. The Ocean Cleanup Project is slated to begin in 2016. The initial project will feature a 2,000 meter long net placed off the coast of an island between Japan and South Korea. The island of Tsushima produces one cubic meter of ocean pollution per person every year.

The floating barriers will be anchored 4,000 meters deep into the seabed. The nets will collect the debris and be cleaned out to allow them to continue to function. The plan is to operate the Cleanup Project for at least two years. When success is seen in this location additional structures will be planned for other areas.

The Responses

Initial response to the idea was enthusiastic support. However, other scientists and environmentalists have criticized the project as insufficient and unrealistic.

Some have argued the Ocean Clean-Up Project will make a small dent in the magnitude of pollution present in the ocean. They have suggested the impact could be so insignificant as to be a waste of resources. These critics have failed to suggest other possible methods to clean the oceans even as they scoff at Slat’s idea.

Others have pointed to pollution prevention methods as more deserving of funds and energy. Citing grassroots and government supported prevention programs that include banning reusable plastic shopping bags and plastic water bottles, detractors of Slat’s plan say more can be done by decreasing the pollution before it ever makes it to the ocean. The design world has been encouraged to create newer packaging that reduces plastic use and develops biodegradable and earth-beneficial packaging options.

The Future

Proactive pollution prevention efforts are valuable and can dramatically shift how much waste we produce and how we manage it. Prevention efforts do not address the current pressing need of how to remove what is already damaging the world’s oceans, and this is where Slat’s Ocean Cleanup Project provides an active attempt to respond to the situation.

Prevention efforts and cleaning efforts can coexist and work in tandem with each other. Only time will tell if the Ocean Cleanup Project will be as successful in action as it is in theory. The dire state of our oceans makes it imperative to try.

Watch the video on the Ocean Cleanup Project.

images courtesy of Ocean Cleanup Project