The Ocean Cleanup, founded by the the Dutch inventor desperately in need of a haircut, Boyan Slat has tasked themselves with a global problem. That is (their namesake) cleaning up the oceans.
The companies first design, effectively a giant horseshoe shaped skim had me skeptical. It was designed to float in the open ocean collecting plastics passively. Mechanically it’s a sound idea but I couldn’t help feeling like it lacked in scale.
Once plastics have dispersed into the ocean you run into a needle in the haystack problem. The amount of plastic in the ocean is massive, but the ocean itself is even more massive.
When the concentration of something is very low the amount of energy required to extract it increases. This is a problem carbon capture technology knows well. It’s much more effective to collect something at the source where the concentration is high.
Enter The Ocean Cleanup Interceptor
Luckily The Ocean Cleanup is doing just that with the invention of the Interceptor.
The interceptor is effectively a pontoon boat with an extendable barrier that diverts plastic onto a solar powered conveyor belt. The rivers own flow is the primary force doing work.
There are very few points of failure as the conveyor belt is the only moving part. Marine life should also be relatively unaffected as they can simply swim under or around.
It’s very simple, and that is one of the highest praises I can give. Simple solutions are almost always the best, especially when dealing with problems on a global scale.
And Scale is important here. Being able to cheaply make these machines will make or break this plan. In order to be effective they would need to deploy a lot of them. They state that 1000 rivers contribute to 80% of our plastic pollution.
This means we need at least a 1000 of them, but were really good at making boats so it comes down to cost. Hopefully they can leverage economies of scale and make enough that we could cut more than 80% of our plastic pollution before it reaches the ocean.
A secondary benefit of collecting the plastic before it reaches the ocean is that we get it before it has the chance to break down. Plastic in the ocean fractures into a kind of plastic soup which disperses. Things eat it, and it works it’s way up the food chain all the way back to us.
We don’t know the effects being saturated with microscopic plastics will have on our health. They could be entirely benign, but this seems unlikely.
Rather than being broken down in the ocean, the plastics collected can be reused and continue to give us value. There’s no reason we should need to gamble on the effects of microplastics.
Seeing someone boldly confront a problem on a global scale, and create tangible solutions is incredibly encouraging. If you would like to learn more you can do so at their website here
To Boyan Slat and everyone at the Ocean Cleanup, I wish you the best of luck, and you have my thanks.