Viral videos show whales ensnared and sea turtles choking. Studies find some 70 percent of seabirds have ingested the waste. And a photo recently revealed that plastic has found its way to even the deepest reaches of the ocean. Straws, forks, shopping bags, nets and all manner of human detritus seems to be everywhere in what was once the endless, unspoiled sea.
The world has signaled its alarm with a wave of countermeasures: Several American cities have banned plastic straws. Chile this spring joined a growing list of nations forbidding single-use plastic bags. In late May, the European Commission directed its 28 member nations to outlaw throwaway plastics, in what one official called a “global race” to slow the synthetic tide.
And now, an audacious young Dutch inventor named Boyan Slat and his 70-member team have entered the final preparations for a mission to deploy an experimental device they say can capture much of the plastic that fouls the world’s oceans.
A model of Slat’s unique plastics dam passed a crucial trial run in the Pacific Ocean last week and returned to its home base in San Francisco Bay. Days later, the Ocean Cleanup Project said it had won a green light from the Dutch government to conduct operations in international waters. And this week, Slat plans to unveil progress on the first prototype of his invention to reporters in Alameda, California, showing off the ungainly, 2,000-foot-long floating screen that is scheduled to be towed into the ocean before Labor Day.
Its target? The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest of multiple rotating ocean “gyres” that attract waste like giant drains. The Pacific gyre is a sprawling witches’ brew of man-made flotsam, lost fishing gear and invisible plastic particles, stretching across an area three times the size of France.
If the Ocean Cleanup’s floating screen survives the fierce north Pacific weather and successfully traps plastic, its creators plan to deploy 60 similar devices in a remote area between Hawaii and California. Slat’s team calculates that, within five years, the floating arrays can clean up half of the debris in the garbage patch. The Netherlands-based organization promotes it as “The Largest Cleanup in History.”
The Ocean Cleanup seemed big, brazen and bound to struggle when it was introduced in 2016 to Rick Spinrad, an oceanographer who was chief scientist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
“But the more I dove in and got more and more detail, the more I changed my mind,” said Spinrad, now a professor at Oregon State University. “They are doing a very thoughtful well-designed process to get to where they want to go. That is why I am convinced they are going to have some success.” Just how much success, he said, remains to be seen.
The Ocean Cleanup’s profile has been elevated by its media-genic founder and leader. Uncannily confident, Slat used a TEDx talk in 2012 in his native Netherlands to announce that a solution to one of the world’s most intractable environmental problems was within grasp. He would solve the problem. He was 18 years old.
Now, six weeks shy of his 24th birthday, Slat still thinks he has the answer. And he has been persuasive enough to win praise from kings and prime ministers, rock stars and the United Nations. He also has drawn a cadre of persistent critics, who say his plan is directed at the wrong end of the plastics life cycle and could harm the very sea life it is meant to protect.
Slat rejects the notion that the amount of trash is already too immense, and too widely dispersed, to capture. “We can do this,” he has said. “We must do this. And we will do this.”