Energy, News, and Climate / How do we science? / Policy

The Value of Invention: 3 Years of the Ocean Cleanup (and UNdertheC!)

UNdertheC was founded 3 years ago this month, which may lead you to ask, what other outlandishly successful marine initiatives share our inaugural year of 2013?  The most prominent seems to be the Ocean Cleanup, and HOLY COW.  The last time I’d paid much attention to the project, it was still a somewhat dreamy approach to addressing the serious problem of plastic pollution.  No more, my friends.  In the same amount of time that we’ve been live on the interwebs, the Ocean Cleanup has become a multimillion dollar effort awash in optimism and scrutiny.

You’ve probably heard about the Ocean Cleanup at some point.  It started as a high school science project created by 17-year-old Boyan Slat.  When introducing Slat in a narrative, it’s apparently unlawful to leave out his age, as if it’s an official title.  There’s reason for that: people are effectively gobsmacked that a Dutch teenager managed to leverage a school project into a position as CEO.  By all accounts, Slat had always been creative.  He tinkered in engineering as a kid and set the world record for the extremely specific feat of most water rockets launched simultaneously.  (Ok, ok, I won’t keep you in suspense: the number is 213.)  So it didn’t come out of left field when he decided to take his science project to the next level.

A visualization of the screen apparatus in relation to the swirling current. Image from https://www.theoceancleanup.com/technology/

A visualization of the screen apparatus in relation to the swirling current. Image from https://www.theoceancleanup.com/technology/

The project addressed an issue that we’ve discussed many times here on UNdertheC: plastic pollution in the oceans.  Much of that plastic is aggregated in ocean gyres, which gave Slat an idea.  What if current movements could be used to push plastic pieces into some sort of net?  Slat envisioned a long floating V-shaped screen that would collect plastic as water moved through it, eventually funneling most of the debris into the screen’s center hinge.  The whole apparatus would be stabilized by a mooring.  Realizing that building such a device was beyond the range of his allowance, Slat began soliciting sponsors, to no avail.  Then he became an internet sensation, which is where Slat’s narrative diverges from that of UNdertheC’s; we are still waiting to go viral beyond the Marshall Islands (hi, Serena!).

The cleanup apparatus. The mooring secures the booms, which have a screen hanging from them to help collect debris. Image from https://www.theoceancleanup.com/technology/

The cleanup apparatus. The mooring secures the booms (the yellow pillows), which have a screen hanging from them to help collect debris. Image from https://www.theoceancleanup.com/technology/

Maybe we need to make a TED talk, because that’s what eventually put Slat on the map.  Without explanation, his TED talk on the project went viral, and before he knew it, he had boatloads of donations, enough to launch his company, the Ocean Cleanup.  Flash forward a few years, and the 22-year-old Slat is now the boss of 40+ quirky, earnest-looking folks who just deployed a prototype in the North Sea and are currently conducting plastic recon in the Pacific with a sweet company plane.  Alas, there’s a catch to this fairytale!  Could it be that, as Slat cruises around on a trans-Pacific garbage hunt, the scientific community has raised real questions about the viability of his project?

His plane is called Ocean Force One. The parody writes itself, folks. Image from https://www.theoceancleanup.com/milestones/aerial-expedition/

His plane is called Ocean Force One. Not even kidding. Image from https://www.theoceancleanup.com/milestones/aerial-expedition/

Ding ding!  Science requires criticism.  That can be annoying or downright detrimental.  However, criticism can also be an effective screening mechanism for bad ideas, especially bad ideas that cost a lot of money.  As the Ocean Cleanup has gained traction, scientists have been more outspoken in their concerns about its methods.  Deep Sea News has two articles that provide an excellent technical background; the second link was written by two scientists who reviewed the Ocean Cleanup’s feasibility study.  On the whole, scientists object that the Ocean Cleanup team is overlooking or blatantly ignoring basic oceanography.  They point out that the screens could capture by-catch, including gelatinous things like fish eggs or jellyfish.  There are concerns about biofouling and the potential for the cleanup devices to become a sort of habitat for fish, which could change their migration habits (further explained here on Southern Fried Science).  Then there are questions of engineering.  The apparatus has been modeled under average, rather than maximum, current speed; tension was not properly addressed in the modeling; the assembly plan seems overly optimistic.

Would the response be different if the idea came from Jimmy Neutron? Discuss. Image from http://adventuresofjimmyneutron.wikia.com/

Would the response be different if the idea came from Jimmy Neutron? Discuss. Image from http://adventuresofjimmyneutron.wikia.com

There’s a fascinating tension in the reports I read about the Ocean Cleanup.  On the one hand, you have a “boy-genius-saves-planet narrative,” as the Washington Post aptly phrased it.  It’s compelling and inspiring to think that a twenty-something is now in charge of a company whose logo is emblazoned on aeroplanes.  It’s also a bit irritating.  I’m only a handful of years older than Slat, and I want to pat him on the head and tell him to take a few years off to YOLO or whatever the kids are doing these days.  It’s fair to ask whether someone so young has enough experience in the ways of the world to be trusted with such a tremendous operation.  That’s especially true when said young adult has been given literally millions of dollars and is seeking the go-ahead to construct a massive marine structure, and even more true when it coincides with vanishing funding for established scientists.  Scientists weighing in on the Ocean Cleanup are in the unusual position of using their knowledge to critique the ideas of someone younger, richer, and probably more famous than themselves.  From what I can tell, their caution is valid and hasn’t been specifically addressed by Slat.  Scientists are likely recoiling at the idea of some wunderkind installing a silver bullet solution that, whoops, also has a bunch of really negative side effects.

Boyan Slat, in what I'm guessing is his office. Note that his poster says CHALLENGES; how strategic IS this kid?! Image from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2016/02/01/can-the-largest-cleanup-in-history-save-the-ocean/

Boyan Slat, in what I’m guessing is his office. Note that his poster says CHALLENGES; how strategic IS this kid?! Image from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2016/02/01/can-the-largest-cleanup-in-history-save-the-ocean/

Then there’s all that money.  Critics of the Ocean Cleanup suggest that the money and effort poured into the screen apparatus (which really needs a catchy name) could be better used for preventative measures, such as reducing plastic consumption or installing devices that prevent debris from reaching the ocean in the first place.  (That includes Mr. Trash Wheel, currently skimming plastic in the Baltimore Harbor and demonstrating the importance of a catchy name.)  If the Ocean Cleanup’s money was entirely from private donors, this argument would be thinner; people can spend their money at their discretion.  However, the Dutch government helped fund the prototype, meaning that indeed, money that could go to prevention is instead keeping Slat’s screens afloat.

All that said, I’ve never met Slat.  I didn’t even try to interview him for this article, because he famously shuns journalists, even extremely high-profile ones like graduate student bloggers.  So for all I know, he could be a nefarious con artist with an endearing haircut.  But there was an instance related in that Washington Post article, where Slat visits the Smithsonian and ruminates in front of the Wright brothers plane on the importance of failure in invention.  Totally cheesy, right?  Still, for me, this story cut through all the hype surround Slat and captured him as a young adult, with all the foolishness that stage of life entails.  Tons of great ideas were once thought to be insane, and maybe a big difference was that back in the good old days, the entire world couldn’t weigh in on them online.  I do not believe for one second that Slat should put on blinders and ignore the advice of experts.  It is fair to ask, though, whether Slat needs to be given some latitude to invent.  That process may involve failure, carrying financial consequences but possibly opening the doors to future success.  Marine plastic debris is a grave problem that will require many different types of solutions, and maybe one of those solutions is to give some leeway to those enthusiastic enough to tackle it.

For more info, in addition to the links provided in the article text:

Article from The Guardian

Article from the BBC

Previous UNdertheC post on the Ocean Cleanup

Cover image from http://mentalfloss.com/uk/science/29835/this-20-year-old-invented-a-new-way-to-clean-up-the-oceans

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