Could This Gigantic Ocean Plastic Clean-Up Machine Actually Pick Up Our Ocean Trash?

An outlandish idea, floated by a 17-year-old two years ago, now has funding, a 530-page feasibility study, and the backing of 15 institutions. Next step: Actually picking up some trash.

Two years ago, when Boyan Slat first proposed his giant ocean clean-up device, it didn’t seem likely he would actually pull it off. The idea was intriguing, to be sure. But Slat was only 17 at the time and still in high school, and what he was suggesting was outlandish: a floating array spanning many miles and capable of sucking up tons of trash every year. With the best will in the world, it didn’t seem like a teenager would have the experience, resources, or persistence to make the idea a reality.


Fast forward to June 2014 and things seem quite different. Slat doesn’t yet have a working machine, but he has made a lot of progress. His Ocean Cleanup project has produced a 530-page feasibility study covering technology, legal issues, and financing. It’s gathered a management team and plenty of volunteers. It’s got the backing of 15 institutions, including universities and engineering groups. And it’s raised money: an initial crowd-funding campaign, in April 2013, brought in $80,000 in 15 days. It’s all mighty impressive.

Slat, who is Dutch, was in New York recently to present the report and drum up money for the next stage: a fully operational pilot array that he hopes to put in the water within four years. Ocean Cleanup has a new funding campaign and a new video, which you can see here:

Slat designed the array to deal with the enormous and very tricky problem of plastic pollution. Billions of pieces litter the world’s oceans, multiplying in number as each fragment is churned up by the waves. His guiding principle is passivity. Rather than chasing trash all over the sea, he harnesses ocean currents and wind patterns (rotating systems called “gyres”) that circulate plastic naturally. His design, which is fixed to the seabed, has two 30-mile booms in a V-shape, which funnel debris into a central collecting column.

The feasibility report provides a lot more detail. The platform (or “spar”) which resembles a oil-rig ballast, has a mesh conveyor belt for gathering the trash, as well as a small particle intake halfway up. It’s powered by solar panels on its roof.

The study expects the platform to gather plastic at a rate of 65 cubic meters per day, and that it would need to be emptied every 45 days. It budgets a total of $432 million over a 10-year lifespan, which would be offset by recycling the plastic for other uses. The report expects the array to pull in 154 million pounds of plastic in total, or 42% of the estimated garbage in the North Pacific Gyre.

“Based on this collected evidence, it is concluded that the Ocean Cleanup Array is likely a feasible and viable method for large-scale, passive, and efficient removal of floating plastic from the North Pacific Garbage Patch,” the report says.


We shall see. You can contribute to the project here. Slat’s looking for $2 million to get through the next phase.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.