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Is Boyan Slat’s Pacific Garbage Patch Ocean Cleanup “Bullshit?”

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In 2013, Boyan Slat made headlines when his TEDx Talk about cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch with a passive plastic catchment system went viral.

Slat quit his university studies, and at age 18 created a non-profit, The Ocean Cleanup, which raised tens of millions of dollars. But his first system was unable to retain what little plastic it caught and broke apart in the ocean. The redesigned system caught just a little bit of garbage, and now scientists are questioning the effectiveness and wisdom of his latest system.

That system, nicknamed Jenny, in 2021 took 120 hours just to collect 8.2 tons of plastic, which is less than what fits in a standard garbage truck. Worse, critics say its reliance on two massive fuel-powered Maersk vessels to tow a horseshoe-shaped net through the ocean is creating a carbon footprint that is just as bad as the plastic problem in the ocean.

Now experts are also questioning the legitimacy of a video The Ocean Cleanup recently released on Twitter. In the video, a large net appears to dump 8,400 pounds of plastic waste onto the deck of a ship, but a number of marine biologists questioned the video’s authenticity. They said the plastic looked way too clean to have been floating around the ocean and should have been covered in various marine organisms. The Ocean Cleanup said the water in the garbage patch lacked the nutrients for marine life to grow, but the scientists rebuffed that claim as well.

Experts are also questioning the wisdom of trying to rid the ocean of plastic, saying it cannot be done effectively and that resources should be devoted to preventing plastic from going into the ocean in the first place.

Slat has gotten himself in a bit of trouble there as well. In 2019, with much fanfare, including a laser show, he announced the creation of the Interceptor, a device that catches plastic in rivers before it enters the oceans. But the Interceptor is a spruced-up version of Mr. Trash Wheel, which was invented in 2014 by John Kellett. Mr. Trash Wheel is a clever, passive trash collection system that cleans the waters of Baltimore, Maryland, raises public awareness, and has a fun Twitter feed to boot.

After Slat’s unveiling of the Interceptor, the Mr. Trash Wheel team poked some good-natured fun at Slat by making an intentionally shaky and amateurish video with DIY-laser effects that said they had “an exciting announcement” to make.

Almost everyone agrees that Slat’s intentions to clean up the ocean are good, but not everyone is amused by his methods. After seeing the video of the clean plastic being dumped onto the deck, scientist Clark Richards at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography wrote, “This is likely a staged video. I call bullshit on this stunt.”

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