Garbage Patch kid
September 12, 2013 10:49 PM   Subscribe

With the Great Pacific Garbage Patch increasing in size, coming up with a viable solution seems like a pretty important thing to do. Enter Boyan Slat, the 19-year-old with a plan that could clean up 7,250,000,000kg of plastic from the world's oceans - within about five years.

Slat and his friend Tan Nguyen came up with the Ocean Cleanup plan in their final year of secondary school, and went on to win the Best Technical Design 2012 from Delft University of Technology. The project's attracted a fair bit of media coverage lately, not all of it entirely accurate, so Slat has hastened to add that they are only 1/4 through a feasibility study. In the meantime, you can watch his TEDx talk about how the oceans clean themselves.
posted by Athanassiel (39 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
This concept is so efficient, that we estimate that by selling the plastic retrieved from the 5 gyres, we would make in fact more money than the plan would cost to execute. In other words; it may potentially be profitable.

I hope their feasibility study goes well.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:52 PM on September 12, 2013 [11 favorites]


I don't know if it would work, but the design is kind of elegant. Use the currents to drive the process, so there's no moving parts.

One thing, though. If the plastic in the gyres is full of PCBs and other pollutants, it won't be recyclable. They'd have to dispose of it somewhere as toxic waste.
posted by Kevin Street at 11:22 PM on September 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


It seems they have some idea of the kind plastic they will retrieve:

Although the quality of the plastic is somewhat lower than ordinary recycled plastic, it could for example be mixed with other plastics to produce high-quality products.
posted by Dr Dracator at 11:55 PM on September 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


PLEASE READ THIS FIRST

The last couple of months several (spontaneous) articles have been published, claiming The Ocean Cleanup Array is a 'feasible method' of extracting plastic from the gyres.
This is an incorrect statement; we are currently only at about halfway our feasibility study. Only after finishing that study, we believe such statements should be made. Although the preliminary results look promising, and our team of about 50 engineers, modellers, external experts and students is making good progress, we had and have no intention of presenting a concept as a feasible solution while still being in investigative phase.

Please stay tuned for this study, which will be published online in several months' time.
We kindly request the press to refrain from any further publication, until all assumptions of this concept have been confirmed.

We expect the feasibility study to be ready for publication around the end of this year.
Thank you.

This level of honesty is refreshing. Even if they don't solve the problem, they will probably learn something that will help someone else do it.
posted by b1tr0t at 11:55 PM on September 12, 2013 [47 favorites]


It would be a little niftier if it showed me a bit more about how it is supposed to actually work. Does it yell at the plastic until it jumps in the hopper in shame or what? While we are being all environmental, what's the impact of the collection infrastructure. I mean now we have all this plastic. What's the environmental impact of the garbage ships (I assume) to keep these empty?

How are they moved once a location is cleaned out, or are they a lost cost after that?

Nifty as hell idea (I think), but some hard data, as opposed to pie in the sky would be nice.
posted by Samizdata at 12:02 AM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I actually tried to find some articles addressing the feasibility of the plan. My googlefu must have been in a slump because I couldn't find anything useful before I hit "post" and yet now have found several. So, to rain on my own parade in the interests of balanced reporting, it seems that there are some pretty big holes in the plan. Anyone else feel inspired? Here's some guidelines.
posted by Athanassiel at 12:13 AM on September 13, 2013 [11 favorites]


Cool idea. didn't read all the links but someone should hook these guys up with Pelamis. moving boooms on the ocean, especially if they're jointed, can actually produce a substantial amount of energy. from what I know about off-shore wave power, fastening this thing to the sea bed and making sure it can handle storms, and diagnosing and repairing problems with anchoring system will be a significant challenge. I assume these gyres are WAY offshore and in VERY deep water, making the challenges even greater.
posted by molecicco at 12:21 AM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Last question - How much did he pay for the nifty mockup renderings of the collectors?

I am bad. I am sorry. I will leave the thread now.
posted by Samizdata at 12:21 AM on September 13, 2013


Thanks for the links, Athanassiel, I found them pretty convincing. The post would be a bit better if they were included in it.
posted by twjordan at 12:33 AM on September 13, 2013


Also, Pelamis Wave Power for those who are interested!

Honestly, this could be a very cool research project. If they got various international governments to fund it, and various businesses involved for the materials and equipment, this would be a great way to field test deep sea anchor systems (and the materials used for them), wave power technologies, and just work out some of the logisitcs of operating something so far off shore. I could see a lot of mutual benefits.
posted by molecicco at 1:00 AM on September 13, 2013


They'd have to dispose of it somewhere as toxic waste.

For plastics, landfill disposal is often preferable over incineration regarding emissions of gases contributing to climate change.
posted by three blind mice at 1:31 AM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Nanobots turn the plastic into highly reflective and buoyant sheets, the center of the Pacific saves us from global thermal runaway. Patent pending.

I sue the people who try to use my idea! RICH!
posted by Meatbomb at 1:55 AM on September 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


Unexpected local drop in seawater temperature disturbs Cthulhu's sleep. R'lyeh emerges.

Humanity desperately runs for cover! GIBBERING MADNESS!
posted by Dr Dracator at 2:18 AM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Between three and six 1920s archetypes band together to save the world. Cultists fought.

Cthulhu returned to slumber! AT LUDICROUS SAN COST!
posted by Iridic at 2:32 AM on September 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Dr Dracator: "Unexpected local drop in seawater temperature disturbs Cthulhu's sleep. R'lyeh emerges.

Humanity desperately runs for cover! GIBBERING MADNESS!
"

Well, I like this plan. Don't have to worry about global warming and such if we are all dead or insane.
posted by Samizdata at 3:04 AM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


For plastics, landfill disposal is often preferable over incineration regarding emissions of gases contributing to climate change.

There's a big difference between a sanitary landfill and a toxic waste landfill.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:37 AM on September 13, 2013


Molecicco: the pelamis as with all offshore wave energy devices needs to be tethered to the sea bed or it becomes a hazard to shipping. Adequate moorings remain a significant challenge in the sector since they have to both keep the device in place and allow it sufficient movement to operate. So for example the pelamis needs to be free to flex as that is how it converts wave energy to electricity. I am pretty sure they aren't going to stick anything on it that might interfere with maximising energy uptake.

I am not sure pelamis are the big leaders in getting this tech working any more. Five years ago it looked like they would be the first to get a working device out and operational in 'proper' sea conditions (that is, the kind of conditions they need to be able to survive in to have a chance of becoming economic). They got three out at a site south of Porto, Portugal but there was some sort of failure and they had to be brought back in. By a strange coincidence I am in Porto at the moment and apparently the three devices pelamis tried to install just south of here are still on the harbour side so we plan to go hunting for them this afternoon (my SO is more of a wave buff than me, its her idea.)
posted by biffa at 3:49 AM on September 13, 2013


This after-the-fact thinking is not good. Put any potential gyre cleanup money into developing biodegradable plastics that actually biodegrade in a reasonable time under normal disposal conditions, and then enforce the use of those biodegradable plastics for pretty much everything you might commonly find floating in the gyre. It is insane to make disposable beverage containers, plastic straws, etc., that will long outlive you and your grandchildren.

And things that can't be made biodegradable need to be returnable, with a large enough mandatory deposit to make most people actually want to return them. If the redemption rate isn't close to 100 percent, the deposit is too low.
posted by pracowity at 4:34 AM on September 13, 2013 [18 favorites]


I don't know any more about the concept than what's on the website, but I don't see how they're going to handle a couple of basic problems oil skimmers have in similar situations.

My understanding of the debris field is that a large portion of the plastic is fragmented and in small pieces. In terms of modelling and recovery, the gyre debris is a much like fluid recovery problem. In terms of its behavior, there are some interesting features. A typical slick spreads because of dispersion forces, essentially random motion. A fluid slick held together by cohesive ones like surface tension, which a collection of particles will not have. I would expect the plastic debris field to be more spread out compared to an oil slick of similar size.

In oil spills, the biggest problem for mechanical removal is encounter rate, finding the oil. During spills, there is a system of aerial, satellite and boat spotters in place, and even with that recoveries are very low, on the order of 3 to 5% total for the cycle of an open water spill response.

Using booms to up the encounter rate is a standard technique for surface oil collection, and this project intends to use them as well. Booms, however, are limited by wave height and wind. You want waves to be lower than 1 yard/meter high and calm winds. Whitecaps are usually a sign you need to stop operations.

There's not a lot of detail here to judge, but they have some significant challenges to overcome with this design. I'd need to see the models and operational plans they intend to make a better evaluation, but I can say that collecting debris from the Pacific gyre isn't an easy problem, and one that's been underestimated before.
posted by Anonymous 5$ Sockpuppet at 6:05 AM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


These solutions to difficult problems are becoming cliché. I can't fault the kid for his idealism, but the Internet is full of ideas that sound great at first blush but which never develop into anything tangible. It's too easy to whip up a webpage. Building something real is far more difficult.

Treehugger is full of this kind of stuff. It makes the iPad crowd feel better about their consumerism. If I see another northern California-style, feel-good, promotional video on how some revolutionary idea is going to save us all, I think I'll throw up in my mouth.

It takes more than knowing how to use Blender to make things sustainable. If this problem is ever solved, it will be on the input side.
posted by rhombus at 6:11 AM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Back in ye olden days, I vaguely remember a site (Half-Baked?) that was all threads like this: someone would propose a solution to some problem and everyone else would jump all over it.
posted by pracowity at 6:22 AM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


If I see another northern California-style, feel-good, promotional video on how some revolutionary idea is going to save us all, I think I'll throw up in my mouth.

And the fact that it's fronted by a 19-year old is just perfect.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 6:23 AM on September 13, 2013


This after-the-fact thinking is not good. Put any potential gyre cleanup money into developing biodegradable plastics that actually biodegrade in a reasonable time under normal disposal conditions, and then enforce the use of those biodegradable plastics for pretty much everything you might commonly find floating in the gyre. It is insane to make disposable beverage containers, plastic straws, etc., that will long outlive you and your grandchildren.

And then compel every nation and company in the world to use these plastics? Sure, sounds easy enough.
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:28 AM on September 13, 2013


Back in ye olden days, I vaguely remember a site (Half-Baked?) that was all threads like this: someone would propose a solution to some problem and everyone else would jump all over it.

Halfbakery, pracowity.
posted by limeonaire at 6:46 AM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


And then compel every nation and company in the world to use these plastics?

Country by country, it wouldn't be impossible to change a lot of places. Start with the US and everything it manufactures or imports. That cleans up the trouble directly caused by Americans (a large chunk of the world's pollution) and puts pressure on places like China to comply or be unable to export certain entire categories of products to the US. Once they are making compliant products for export, it's that much easier to change domestic practices.
posted by pracowity at 6:48 AM on September 13, 2013


Start with the US

Aaaaaaand, you're stalled.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 6:57 AM on September 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


Maybe Garbage Patch Kids will be the sustainable, environmentally friendly collectibles of the (next?) decade?
posted by flippant at 6:58 AM on September 13, 2013


Someone should give the kid a boat ride out there during a small storm. Seriously confirm his (actual) plans to become a grant writer.
posted by sammyo at 7:20 AM on September 13, 2013


showbiz_liz: "And then compel every nation and company in the world to use these plastics?"

We basically did it with CFCs.
posted by schmod at 7:21 AM on September 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


Friends of MetaFilter,

I've been in contact with this gentleman to the slightest of degrees, meaning a few emails back and forth between him and his friend from school.
While Boyan is certainly the face of this initiative, securing venture capital from the likes of Richard Branson, and organizing the general scope of the project, the majority of these investigations and simulations are being carried out by unnamed scientists and engineers who have been kind enough to volunteer their time and expertise to making this project come to fruition without traditional institutional support. People are working on this because they want to work on it, not because they have immediate financial incentives to work on it.

I had to drop my involvement due to some unrelated difficulties on my end, but if anyone wants to try their hand at thinking about numerical modeling of floating debris in the context of optimal gyre deployment location and placement efficiency, there is a unique and likely still unmet opportunity here, and I can put you in touch with the person that has data and MATLAB scripts waiting to be crunched through. Just drop me a MeMail.

I also must add that the refreshing honesty is almost certainly in response to this muckraking inhabitat article written by the policy director of 5gyres, an organization with a similar mission, but different approach.
posted by oceanjesse at 7:24 AM on September 13, 2013 [13 favorites]


Brilliant thread title.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 7:47 AM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


I also must add that the refreshing honesty is almost certainly in response to this muckraking inhabitat article written by the policy director of 5gyres, an organization with a similar mission, but different approach.

Yeah, that article is all kinds of "You're not wrong, Walter. You're just an asshole." I was really interested in all of the explanations for why it's not feasible, and indeed some of what he said makes this look like a dead end, but the stuff where he just unloads on the kid for being naive and idealistic and arrogant - it's not the kid's fault that that's the dance the team needs someone to do to get the funding to do the research. Like b1tr0t said upthread, "Even if they don't solve the problem, they will probably learn something that will help someone else do it.", even research with pretty obvious dead ends can yield very useful things. What if they come out of this with a good idea that makes deep-sea mooring or resilience in really rough seas or resistance to sea life fouling up the works a little easier for the next dozen ideas that need those things? The problem is the shitty system where so much research can't get done because it won't make anyone who could fund it more money immediately, which creates a need for the sales pitch full of hype and promised profits.
posted by jason_steakums at 8:02 AM on September 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


Could this be used to scoop up those jellyfish?
posted by monospace at 8:39 AM on September 13, 2013


This level of honesty is refreshing. Even if they don't solve the problem, they will probably learn something that will help someone else do it.

Agreed entirely. That was really refreshing, and a beautiful example of direct engagement with bullshit sensationalist journalism. Hey guys, "feasibility" actually has a definition, and we're going to concretely answer that question by formally studying it.
posted by odinsdream at 8:40 AM on September 13, 2013


Yes - judging by the uproar here in Maryland to proposals to charge a nickel per plastic bag, getting the US to change its upstream use of plastic would be a heavy lift. And MD is a very blue state.
posted by jetsetsc at 10:00 AM on September 13, 2013


Yeah. The other takedown was a bit more respectful and specific in terms of the obvious engineering hurdles that will need to be overcome.

A few of them are debatable (Will it be "good enough" to only skim the plastic that's on the surface? Is it OK if we kill some plankton in the process?), while there are other engineering concerns that will certainly need to be addressed (How will you moor something in the deepest part of the Pacific, and how will the boom survive storms?)

I look forward to the results of the feasibility study, although I fear that a few of the project's underlying assumptions are going to be very difficult to reconcile with the laws of physics.
posted by schmod at 10:55 AM on September 13, 2013


jetsetsc: "Yes - judging by the uproar here in Maryland to proposals to charge a nickel per plastic bag, getting the US to change its upstream use of plastic would be a heavy lift. And MD is a very blue state."

We did it in DC. It wasn't initially popular, but it's pretty much a non-issue at this point.
posted by schmod at 10:56 AM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


"...even research with pretty obvious dead ends can yield very useful things. What if they come out of this with a good idea that makes deep-sea mooring or resilience in really rough seas or resistance to sea life fouling up the works a little easier for the next dozen ideas that need those things? The problem is the shitty system where so much research can't get done because it won't make anyone who could fund it more money immediately, which creates a need for the sales pitch full of hype and promised profits."

This is pretty much the difference between public and privately funded research. The publicly funded researcher can work on a problem for it's own sake - and if nothing practical ever comes out of the work, at least it's one more Lego-block in the giant structure of human knowledge that someone else might build upon someday. The privately funded researcher has to make money for the investors, and must focus upon results, results, results, or get shut down.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:26 PM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Iridic: "Between three and six 1920s archetypes band together to save the world. Cultists fought.

Cthulhu returned to slumber! AT LUDICROUS SAN COST!
"

Why so many different archetypes? All flapper, all the time.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 2:56 PM on September 13, 2013


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