Businessweek: This Thiel-Backed Startup Says It Can Clean Up the Seas. Scientists Have Doubts

Boyan Slat, a Dutch 23-year-old who’s collected $30 million for his plastic-removal startup, is ready to test Ocean Cleanup’s System 001 prototype, but he hasn’t assuaged his expert critics.

Of all the things San Francisco has brought into the wider world, few have been as big and curious-looking as Ocean Cleanup’s System 001, the contraption an offshore supply ship towed to sea through the Golden Gate last month. Black, snakelike, and 2,000 feet long, System 001 was beginning a slow 1,300-mile journey to a remote garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean. When it arrives in mid-October, it will spend a year drifting around and around in a circular current, gathering as much plastic as possible, like a gigantic pool skimmer.

The idea can be attributed to Boyan Slat, a slight, 23-year-old Dutchman of Croatian descent who wears his curly brown hair in a mop and favors sunglasses made of recycled plastic. He says he became concerned about ocean debris when he was 16, scuba diving off the coast of Greece. In the intervening seven years, with the help of a viral explainer video, he’s raised more than $30 million from Inc. co-founder Marc Benioff, Palantir Technologies Inc. co-founder Peter Thiel, and others to try to prove that setups such as System 001’s can, in great enough numbers, help rid the ocean of plastic by 2050.

There’s just one problem, say ocean scientists: The device can’t possibly work on the scale imagined, and it could end up becoming just another piece of litter in the ocean. “People think that it’s an easy, sexy solution, but it’s not,” says Kim Martini, an oceanography postdoc at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. Given that only single-digit percentages of the plastic entering oceans each year wind up in the garbage patches, “it’s clear that the problem is much bigger than what we’re able to solve,” admits Ocean Cleanup spokesman Joost Dubois.

Slat says Ocean Cleanup has conducted extensive modeling and prototype testing and that the outcry from his more credentialed peers (he dropped out of college) just proves he’s on to something. “If you don’t have any critics, it means that what you’re doing is easy and obvious,” he says.

What everyone agrees on is that the world’s oceans contain too much plastic. An estimated 8 million tons are deposited in them each year and about 250,000 tons wind up in one of five oceanic garbage patches, heavily polluted circular currents. There the plastic kills millions of turtles, birds, dolphins, and other creatures that become entangled in it or accidentally eat it, ingesting toxins that can travel up the food chain to humans.

System 001 is a tiny version of Slat’s idea. Basically, he wants to drag the oceans, using a fleet of 40 floating booms to dangle 3,000-foot-long curtains of canvaslike fabric that will circle the garbage patches, pushed by wind and current, and scoop up plastic as they go. Every few months a ship will come to collect the refuse and bring it to shore. Some will be recycled and the rest burned for fuel. The hope is that this will help the operation pay for itself and scale up. The plan’s simplicity and bravado has earned Slat a wide audience, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, and 2.8 million people who’ve watched his TEDx talk on YouTube. He says it’s also helped his company attract a talented team of more than 80 employees.

Before Slat, few imagined any single solution could tackle the problem of ocean plastic. Charles Moore, the researcher who first identified a garbage patch in the northern Pacific, said trying to clean one up would bankrupt any country that attempted it. Environmental groups have mostly lobbied industry to produce less plastic and consumers to use less. Although reuse and recycling make a difference, it’s tough to argue with Slat when he notes that the garbage patches are still growing. Efforts at moral suasion are futile, he says—“they go against innate feelings and desires.” Which is to say, people are lazy, and it’s easier to do the job for them.

For years, experts have found Slat’s science wanting and his I-alone-can-fix-it attitude worrisome. When he was in high school, his plan was to anchor a large boom to the seabed. Marine biologist Miriam Goldstein, who led an expedition to study plastic pollution in the North Pacific patch, noted on an academic email chain in 2013 that the device stood little chance of working: It would have to be impractically large, the boom would be unlikely to collect plastic in strong winds or waves, and the mooring cables would have to reach twice as deep as the deepest on record. Slat’s response, a 535-page feasibility study, was strikingly technical but left Goldstein and Martini with a lot of new questions.

“It wasn’t actually peer-reviewed, and that’s a big red flag,” Martini says. She and Goldstein wrote a technical review of the study in 2014, concluding that Ocean Cleanup hadn’t adequately field-tested its equipment, properly designed the mooring system, or accounted for the effects of algae, barnacles, and other sea life. Martini says she’s only grown more worried about it since. “If it breaks, it’s a giant piece of marine debris. Who’s going to clean that up?” she asks. “What if a boat sails into it?”

Responding to critics, Slat’s team enlisted CSA Ocean Sciences Inc., a marine environmental consulting firm, to assess its prototype. CSA’s report, published earlier this year, concluded that Ocean Cleanup’s plan carried a significant risk of environmental harm if it went astray and couldn’t be recovered, but that the potential benefit outweighed the risk. Many scientists remain unconvinced. In June, David Shiffman, a marine biologist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, surveyed 15 ocean-plastics experts around the world and found that none unreservedly supported the project. Five of them would describe it as “a very bad idea with little or no redeeming value,” he says.

When Slat’s original seabed-anchored design proved unworkable, the team replaced it with a version that weighted sea anchors would stabilize. The current wind-and-wave-powered model replaced the sea anchors when they presented their own problems. And even the version en route to the Pacific patch is unlikely to stay there, because objects that float high in the water, unlike submerged flotsam, tend to be driven clear by the wind. “This is why submerged microplastics and fishing nets gather in the garbage patch while the Alaskan coast is clogged with Styrofoam buoys and PET bottles,” says Nikolai Maximenko, an ocean researcher at the University of Hawaii. Spokesman Dubois says Ocean Cleanup expects the offshore supply ship hauling System 001 to be able to pull it back on course as needed. But keeping a bunch of ships around to babysit a fleet of the boom systems would make the whole project far more expensive.

In Slat’s 2012 TEDx video, he said his device would be able to completely clean the garbage patch in the North Pacific in just five years. Today, his company says a fleet of its as-yet-unbuilt 3,000-foot-long models could clean half the patch in that time. The company’s website says “combining the cleanup with source reduction on land paves the road towards a plastic-free ocean by 2050,” but as Dubois acknowledges, virtually all the benefit would be achieved through the difficult, unsexy work of keeping plastic out of the ocean in the first place.

Until the system is tested, of course, any numbers remain a fantasy. Martini says she believes Slat’s intentions, at least, are pure. “I hope that if it doesn’t work, all this momentum will be used for something that will,” she says. “If he could use that charisma for an idea that has legs and could work, that would be amazing.”

BOTTOM LINE – Ocean Cleanup is about to try to show the world that its ambitious plastic-sweeping plan can work, but serious questions remain, and the endeavor alone can’t solve the problem.

[Note: this article first appeared on on October 9, 2018]