Boyan Slat’s ocean-cleaning idea has struck a chord with a lot of people. It was recently announced that his project, The Ocean Cleanup, had raised a pretty staggering $31 million, which makes it possible to roll out the first cleanup system early in 2018. Slat estimates that he can remove half of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage patch in just five years, but critics are calling bullshit.
It’s a reasonably simple idea: the ocean’s currents propel float plastic debris towards strategically placed booms. From there, it’s funneled back into a large central tank, then collected each month and taken back to shore for recycling. The Ocean Cleanup Project eventually wants to pay for the whole thing by making products from the plastic, then selling it.
Skeptics, though, have a bone to pick with the young inventor. “Focusing clean-up at those gyres, in the opinion of most of the scientific community, is a waste of effort,” marine biologist Jan van Franeker of Wageningen Marine Research in the Netherlands told Science. “It’s a lot of money to reduce something that disappears in 10 to 20 years, if you stop the input.”
Another issue the project’s critics pose is that the Ocean Cleanup Project takes away from the real problem: the amount of plastic that enters the ocean. “It’s not the best solution,” Marcus Eriksen of the LA-based 5 Gyres Institute told Science. “In fact, it’s a distraction from the work going on upstream.”
And there’s another problem, too. There’s a good chance that Slat’s project could end up being disastrous for marine life, such as plankton. Placing trash collectors in rivers might be a more efficient way of stopping the flow of plastic with the added benefit of reducing the risk to marine life. Recent computer simulations seem to back that up. According to a study in Environmental Research Letters, garbage collectors near shore in China and Indonesia–two of the biggest offenders–might be a better option.
Slat, however, isn’t deterred. He’d like to see it all happen, both in the ocean’s gyres at in the rivers that flow into the ocean. “We need to do both,” he says. “We need to intercept plastic before it becomes ocean plastic. And we need to clean up what is out there.”