The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

April 19, 2015

Is There Hope For Cleaning Up The Pacific Garbage Patch?

This post might be controversial, but sometimes you have to admit when you might have been a little bit… wrong?  Anyway, five years ago, I wrote a pretty depressing blog post about why we cannot solve the problem of ocean plastic pollution by focusing on cleanup schemes.

2010- 2013: My Doubts

My point was that as long as we continue to consume vast amounts of disposable plastic, any effort at cleanup would be, to quote Captain Charles Moore, “like bailing water from a bathtub with the spigot still running.” So, in 2012, when I started hearing about a Dutch teenager who had designed an expensive contraption to clean up the gyre within 5 years, I dismissed the story as just one more distraction from the real issue.  Here’s then 18-year old engineering student Boyan Slat at a TEDx event in Delft explaining his idea:

Since he first conceived the idea of a passive collection device into which ocean currents would deposit plastic debris without harming sea life, Boyan has determinedly pursued his plan, speaking to the media and meeting with scientists, investors, and activists.  And most of the reaction from activists has been similar to what mine was:  Stop wasting your time on this.  We need to focus on reducing the amount of plastic consumed, not building expensive machines to clean up what’s already out there.  Plus, your idea won’t even work.

2014: The Debate

Last summer, MarineDebris.Info organized an online panel discussion with Dr. Marcus Eriksen of 5Gyres (one of the ocean heroes profiled in my book Plastic-Free), Nick Mallos of the Trash Free Seas Program at Ocean Conservancy, and Boyan Slat of The Ocean Cleanup, to debate the feasibility of cleaning up ocean plastics.  I was excited to hear this debate and to understand the science explaining why Boyan’s plan would not work.

Here are some highlights from the 86 minute debate:

Marcus says that prevention is the harder road, but it works and has long-term, lasting impacts.

Boyan agrees that prevention should come before cleanup.  But he doesn’t believe that focusing on prevention precludes trying to develop new technologies.

Marcus points out that there’s a simpler way. Ocean plastic doesn’t just stay in one place.  The gyres spit the plastic back out, and eventually, it washes ashore on islands such as Hawaii.  (A phenomenon I witnessed first hand on a beach on Oahu.) Why spend so much money on a machine in the ocean when we could wait until the plastic reaches land and focus on less expensive beach cleanups instead?


Boyan counters that letting beaches become overwhelmed with plastic is not ideal for the real humans and animals who live in those places, not to mention damage to reefs.  He’d rather create an “artificial island” in the ocean to do the same thing without ecological harm to coastal areas.  He also notes that capturing the bigger pieces in the ocean prevents them from degrading into microplastics and becoming even harder to clean up.

Marcus mentions devices installed at the mouths of rivers that can prevent plastic from reaching the ocean.  In fact, I saw one such device at the Baltimore Inner Harbor last year.  The Inner Harbor Water Wheel is solar-powered and collects plastic trash long before it reaches the ocean.


Boyan mentions that river cleanup devices are also part of his solution but wonders how they are any different from ocean cleanup machines if the concern is about giving people the impression that the problem is solved and no personal action is necessary.

Marcus worries that if limited resources are directed towards technological solutions, less attention will be paid to changing the way products are produced and consumed.  We’ll be less likely to hold companies and ourselves accountable.

But Boyan feels that all the media attention he’s been getting is a good way to draw attention to this issue: an issue that many people, surprisingly, are still unaware of.  As a personal example, my TEDx talk from 2010 has received over 30,000 views.  Boyan’s?  1,763,000.  He’s reaching a lot more people, and hopefully influencing those people to think about plastic pollution.

So, after watching this debate last year, I actually felt less inclined to diss ocean cleanup efforts than I had in the past.  But that was about all.  (Click here to read a whole lot more about the actual project and download the feasibility study report.)

2015: The Interview

And then, several weeks ago, while attending Algalita’s Plastic Ocean Pollution Solutions Youth Summit in Southern California, I got a text message from Dianna Cohen of the Plastic Pollution Coalition (an organization that embraces advocacy groups like 5Gyres and Algalita as well as technological projects such as The Ocean Cleanup.)  “I’m meeting Boyan Slat tonight at 8:30pm in town. Any chance you could stay one more night and return tomorrow? Join us. Meet him.”

Holy crap!  Damn right I will.  A chance to meet this guy in person and ask him all the questions I wanted?  I totally rearranged my travel plans, even though it meant flying back the next morning super early and dragging myself and my suitcase straight to the office from the airport.

Over dinner, I asked him questions, took notes, and even debated him a bit.  Dianna surreptitiously snapped photos.



So what do I think now?

I think he’s a smart kid. (Hey, I just turned 50 this year.  I get to call him a kid even though he’s now technically an adult.)  I am not an engineer, so I don’t know if his idea will work.  He is an engineer, and he’s not entirely sure either.  But he said a few things to me that made a lot of sense.

First, he told me how surprised he had been to receive such a negative response from activists who told him it couldn’t be done.  So he searched the literature to read about ocean cleanup attempts that had failed, and he didn’t find any.  He realized it hadn’t been done because the consensus was that it couldn’t be done.  He wanted to at least try.  And he said that in the worst case scenario, his efforts would add to the body of existing knowledge and increase awareness.

I expressed my concern that people who read about his plan will think that the plastic problem is solved and that therefore, they needn’t change their choices and behaviors.  Boyan said that political processes and behavioral changes happen slowly.  Technology is inherently neutral and can amplify human actions.  He would be very worried if the fate of the ocean depended solely on the actions of 7 billion people.


But he’s right about that.  To me, behavior change is crucial, but I’ve always admitted that it’s not enough.  Solving the plastic problem is not an all or nothing proposition.  There isn’t just one solution.  In fact, the last two paragraphs of my book read:

Whoever you are, whatever your age, gender, or economic status, there is something for you to do in the fight against plastic pollution.  There are so many ways to reach out and connect with the wider world.  There are so many dfferent ways to participate in this global movement.  All talents and skills are needed.

Just pick one thing and get started.

Boyan is an engineer with an engineer’s brain and way of looking at the world.  His contribution is technological.  Mine is behavioral.  Marcus’s is scientific.  Others approach the problem via government policy, or entrepreneurship, or citizen action, or art.  All of these approaches are necessary pieces of the puzzle.

If only we all had access to deep pockets to fund our projects.  But that’s a discussion for another day.


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Jenny Bostock
8 years ago

I have recently heard about a Dutch organisation vacuuming up the seabed in order to create more land for Holland. Why can’t this huge vacuum cleaner be directed to the gyres to use them as hardcore for the land.

8 years ago

Even if his method for cleaning up the oceans will not work, does not mean that method should not be created and implemented. Instead of saying it cannot be done, we should at least try and figure out what does and does not work. I also think prevention clean up can coexist; we do not have to focus on just one idea.

sat kartar
8 years ago

I lived on an island 5yrs ago in scotland hebrides off isle of mull and when i often walked down the narrows[between mull and erraid isle] when tide had gone out it was amazing what i found. I once went out and collected two full plastic bags of plastic junk mostly from bottles,boat rope, containers, bags,,,etc all dumped from shore/boats. we even had the steiner school kids from mainland stay for week and we took them out for a morning clearing up but of course thye got bored after a few hours…..Theres plenty we can do and be more mindful when dumping off this stuff for sure.

Lucy Kate
8 years ago

This concept is both fascinating and inspiring. Thank you for writing about it! It is amazing just how many people out there don’t believe Boyan’s idea will work and are extremely critical of it – but I believe it could and for the sake of our planet and oceans we must try! And if it doesn’t, then we can learn from it and take what we learned to try something different.

I’ve just discovered your blog and work and am looking forward to following you more, Beth! – Lucy Kate

8 years ago

In order to bridge the gap between the outcome of the study and the full
implementation of the concept, the execution of a series of up-scaling
tests ultimately resulting in a large-scale operational pilot is needed.
To minimize costs, The Ocean Cleanup will act as a facilitator for the
research, outsourcing most of the fundamental research to institutes and
collaborating with offshore and engineering companies to cover most of
the costs. Based on this approach, The Ocean Cleanup now seeks 2 million
dollars for the execution of this next phase, for which it now has
announced a new crowd funding campaign.

Dawn J
8 years ago

Hi, Beth – I am so glad I discovered your site today. My family and I just returned from a beach vacation. I’ve always considered myself ecologically minded – we recycle at home, make most of our own food, take our own to-go containers to restaurants, don’t buy bottled water, etc. But while we were playing on the beach, I took some bags to walk around and collect trash. I was ASTOUNDED at the amount of plastic, it was everywhere – largely comprised of medical waste and bottle caps. It was daunting and depressing, and I came home resolved to go plastic free – I want to do everything in my power for my 7-year-old son and his peers to not have this left behind for them in the future. Your website is a wonderful resource, I’ve discovered so many ideas just in the 10 minutes I’ve been reading it. I imagine I’ll spend the week and read all your posts! Thank you.

Nagashree Manwatkar
8 years ago

Hi, Beth, this is a great post!

I am a huge fan and follower of your plastic free. And am doing a ton of things that you have suggested in your book.

I am an architect by profession. We specify tons of materials in our design. I did a presentation of Plastic Free design at work. I would love to make a bigger impact in our design community.

This post is great to see efforts and passion of people all over to reduce plastic pollution. The post made me research into the Ocean Clean Up company by Boyan Slat.

I am definitely a big supporter of reducing the plastic footprint. I see that people make a considerable effort when you tell them that it is toxic to us by directly ingesting via food and products that are wrapped in plastic.

8 years ago

The questions Boyan has declined to answer on river mouth and coastal interception is whether or not that approach is “more viable” than the ocean clean up array and should take precedence.

Much damage caused by plastic happens in coastal and exclusive economic zones on its way to the gyres.. a pound of plastic prevented or intercepted will have greater benefit than a pound collected at the gyre. Also, prevention and interception can stop those plastics entering the oceans that will break up into microplastics (which the array cannot intercept) or sink before making it to the ocean clean up array.

The array is also going the be the biggest FAD (fish attracting device) in history, attracting marine and birdlife to feed under it and in the concentrated plastic as well as the plume of microplastic pollution it will not capture. This could increase the plastic ingestion rates for these animals significantly.

Finally, the monetary resources required to field the array will benefit a select few scientists, engineers, materials suppliers and construction workers, whilst the same budget spent on prevention and interception, particularly in developing nations, could benefit tens of thousands of impoverished people.

If Boyan’s resources, drive, and ingenuity were instead initially directed to prevention and interception it is likely the ocean cleanup array could be rendered “no longer viable” before it was deployed.

8 years ago

Ok, that water wheel is a fantastic idea! I love how undaunted Boyan seems by naysayers.
I know you have been one of my inspirations to start living with less plastic, now I’ve transferred it to my sister, my boyfriend, and more to come hopefully. So one persons passion can really make a difference. I need to get your book!

8 years ago

I thought this was a great post Beth! I saw the original TED talk, and then read a lot of the criticism and didn’t think that much more of it. So I am super inspired to read that the idea is still going, and good for Boyan for not giving up. What the world needs is positive thinkers and people with a can-do attitude. Maybe it won’t work, but it might, and you’re so right that he’s giving another voice to the problem.
Of course I don’t think it’s a solution to our disposable society but if it helps the environment and our health, it’s definitely worth trying!

8 years ago

We need all voices in this issue, and thank you for evolving along with it. I’m also grateful that there are those who “dare greatly” in the face of those who say it can’t be done.

8 years ago

We need you both, and we need both of your perspectives. We need to eliminate the cause (our use of plastic) and we need to clean up the mess we made. Thanks for your (as always) great reporting on this!

8 years ago

While his work is not scientifically feasible yet, he is reaching a tremendous amount of people with this issue. It’s hard to remember how important this is. We in this field are surrounded by folks who already know at least the basics of the plastic problem, but we sometimes end up preaching to the choir. A great many people remain unaware. In the early stages of any movement for change, spreading the word is as important as generating new ideas. My opinion on cleanup at sea vacillates from time to time, but that doesn’t matter much. We clearly need more attention for this issue and new research. The Ocean Cleanup project has generated both. The amount of attention that Boyan’s project has garnered speaks to people’s hope for a better environment. Even if this project doesn’t pan out, the idea of it has helped spread that hope to new people. It comforts me to know that people at least want a solution.

Regardless of anyone’s opinion on the best way to reduce plastic pollution (mine included), I don’t think we can afford to treat anyone actively working on the issue as anything other that allies. You never know where the next brilliant insight will come from, or who will inspire a great idea in a fresh mind.

Thanks for posting.

8 years ago

Thank you, Beth, for this thought-provoking guest blog. We at Plastic-Free Tuesday too focus on prevention rather than end-of-pipe solutions. But you are right, we should embrace each other’s skills and projects. Only with combined efforts we can stop the plastic waste stream and clean up our oceans.

I am really excited about your book. Amazon said the digital edition would be available from today, so I am now surfing straight to the ebook store to download it. Thank you so much for mentioning us as well as other projects around the world that are working on plastic pollution and prevention. Thank you for helping us to connect to each other!

In this context, I would like to mention a project called Plastic Madonna. The aim is to produce a statute made of PET bottles that people all over the Netherlands have picked up from the street. The plan is to exhibit it in Brazil during the Olympics in 2016. Please check for more information about how to contribute.

8 years ago

The plastic does not get to the ground, stream, river ocean by itself.

8 years ago
Reply to  KarenScribner

What exactly is that “proper place?” I’m assuming you mean the recycling bin (and if you don’t, please disregard my message). Unfortunately, there are instances where plastics that have been put in a recycling bin end up in the ocean. For instance, when something goes in a recycling bin, it then goes to a material recovery facility (MRF) where the various plastics get separated out and baled. Once baled, they become commodities and are sold on the commodities market. These baled items then end up in huge metal containers and loaded onto container ships.Much of the developed worlds’ plastic is purchased by developing countries and is shipped overseas to get to the purchaser’s processing facility. There have been many occasions where containers have actually fallen off of ships, dumping tons and tons of plastics into the ocean.

It’s not a perfect system, so if we want to lessen our impacts on the marine environment, we should start by reducing our consumption of plastics. That way, the bottle you put in the recycling bin isn’t unintentionally littered into the ocean due to an imperfect system.

8 years ago

Great post, Terry. Like you I sometimes look
at these projects wanting to deal with the plastic pollution in the ocean and
scoff a little but then think that we need to try all avenues. For example, I am
not the biggest advocate of recycling because it has done nothing to stem
consumption but I understand recycling is better than losing those resource to
rivers, oceans or landfill until companies, retail stores and consumer behavior changes.
There are more and more grass root activists
coming out of the woodwork advocating for a package free lifestyle and I can
only see this as the beginning. I don’t know if it’s because I am an optimist
but I know things are changing slowly. And if Boyan wants to deal with what is already floating
in our oceans then let him do it tackle that. We need to attack
this from all sides and rely on each other.

8 years ago

Do people take note of something about Boyan Slat – that English is not his native language but he speaks it perfectly? Everyone on earth who has access to the Internet should be learning a second language, even if it is never mastered. My choice is Spanish, but Chinese would be a great pick. Consider the huge increase in those who hear Boyan’s message because he can speak English.

On the subject at hand, the keyword is profitability. If his project can make money to support itself then the largest hurdle (not nurdle!) is overcome. I recently watched a fellow make a very strong claim that by the year 2030, solar power will have eclipsed fossil fuels and there will be no turning back. Just as cars put horses out to pasture, electric cars will do the same with gasoline powered cars. Technology gets us into holes but it can also get us out of them. My town will, in a few months, be banning plastic bags. There is no reason to despair.

We live in a time of instant communication. Word of problems and solutions gets out quickly. The biggest barrier is entrenched interest (read wealth) that works 24/7 to propagandize and outright lie about problems that as long as they are disregarded, allow making loads of money. As always, consider the source of what you hear and act as you would want everyone to act out of common interest.