Technology & Science

Dutch man's solar-powered invention catches plastic in rivers before it enters oceans

A young Dutch inventor is widening his effort to clean up floating plastic from the Pacific Ocean by also moving into rivers, using a new floating device to catch garbage before it reaches the seas.

Floating Interceptor already deployed to Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam

Boyan Slat, founder of The Ocean Cleanup, unveiled on Saturday in Rotterdam a machine called the Interceptor, which floats on rivers to sweep up floating waste. (Robin Trecht/EPA-EFE)

A young Dutch inventor is widening his effort to clean up floating plastic from the Pacific Ocean by also moving into rivers, using a new floating device to catch garbage before it reaches the seas.

Boyan Slat, 25, 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 Saturday, in Rotterdam, he unveiled the next step in his fight: A floating solar-powered device 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 for focusing only on the plastic trash already floating in oceans. Experts say eight million tonnes of plastic waste — including plastic bottles, bags, toys and other items — flow annually into oceans from beaches, rivers and creeks, endangering marine life in the oceans, including whales.

Three of the machines have already been deployed to Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, and a fourth is heading to the Dominican Republic, he said.

Izham Hashim, from the government of Selangor state in Malaysia, was present at Slat's device unveiling, and said he was happy with the machine.

"It has been used for 1½ 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 per cent 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 his audience of enthusiastic supporters, who whooped, clapped and cheered his announcements. "We could truly make our oceans clean again."

Slat used his live-streamed unveiling to appeal for support from countries committing to clean up their rivers and businesses prepared to inject funding and help with the operation of the devices.

A child walks on Kampung Jawa Beach, which is littered with plastic waste, along the coast of the Indian Ocean, Aceh, Indonesia. The World Bank estimates Indonesia generates about 160,000 tonnes of waste each day, about 14 per cent or 22,000 tonnes of which is plastic. (Hotli Simanjuntak/EPA-EFE)

The vessel, which is 24 metres long and has a capacity of 50 cubic metres, is designed to be moored in rivers and has a shaped nose to deflect away larger floating debris like tree trunks. 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 is dropped into dumpsters. The interceptor sends a text message to local operators that can come and empty it when it's full.

Slat showed off how it worked 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.

Machines cost $1M each

The machines currently are about 700,000 euros ($1,015,000 Cdn), 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 argued that 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."

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.