ROTTERDAM, Netherlands—Dutch inventor Boyan Slat is widening his effort to clean up floating plastic from the Pacific Ocean by moving into rivers, too, using a new floating device to catch garbage before it reaches the seas.
The 25-year-old university dropout founded The Ocean Cleanup to develop and deploy a system he invented when he was 18 that catches plastic waste floating in the ocean.
On Oct. 26, he unveiled the next step in his efforts: A floating solar-powered device that he calls the “Interceptor,” which scoops plastic out of rivers as it drifts past.
“We need to close the tap, which means preventing more plastic from reaching the ocean in the first place,” he said, calling rivers “the arteries that carry the trash from land to sea.”
Slat’s organization has drawn criticism in the past for focusing only on the plastic trash already floating in the world’s oceans.
Experts say that some 9 million tons of plastic waste, including plastic bottles, bags, toys, and other items, flow annually into the ocean from beaches, rivers, and creeks.
Three of the machines are already deployed to Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam—with a fourth heading to the Dominican Republic, he said.
Izham Hashim from the government of Selangor state in Malaysia was present at the launch and said he was happy with the machine.
“It has been used for one and a half months in the river and it’s doing very well, collecting the plastic bottles and all the rubbish,” he said.
Slat said he believes 1,000 rivers are responsible for some 80 percent of plastic pouring into the world’s oceans, and he wants to tackle them all in the next five years.
“This is not going to be easy, but imagine if we do get this done,” he told an audience of enthusiastic supporters, who whooped, clapped, and cheered at his announcement. “We could truly make our oceans clean again.”
The vessel is designed to be moored in rivers and is shaped to deflect larger floating debris such as tree trunks.
He used his live-streamed unveiling to seek the support of countries committing to clean up their rivers, and businesses that are prepared to inject funding and help with the operation of the devices.
The interceptors work by guiding plastic waste into an opening in its bow. A conveyor belt then carries the trash into the guts of the machine, where it’s dropped into dumpsters. The interceptor sends a text message to local operators to empty it when it’s full.
Slat demonstrated the device by dumping hundreds of yellow rubber ducks into the water at the launch event in Rotterdam’s port. The interceptor caught nearly all of them.
The machines currently cost about 700,000 euros ($775,600), but Slat said the cost will likely drop as production increases.
Jan van Franeker of the Wageningen Marine Research Institute has been critical of The Ocean Cleanup in the past, but said the new device looks promising.
“I am really happy they finally moved toward the source of the litter,” he said in a telephone interview. “The design, from what I can see, looks pretty good.”
Slat said the economic impact of not picking plastic out of rivers is higher than the cost of buying and using the machines.
“Deploying interceptors is even cheaper than deploying nothing at all,” he said.
By Mike Corder