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Filthy-Minded Teenager
How a 19-year-old's design for a floating recycling bin could help turn the ocean cleanup tide.

While most other kids his age were thinking about how to sneak into R-rated movies, Boyan Slat, a Dutch teenager, was contemplating how to overcome some of the most vexing physical hurdles inherent in our ocean cleanup efforts. Specifically, Slat remembers wondering to himself: “What if there were a way to turn oceanic currents—which can make it so difficult to collect marine trash—from an obstacle into a solution?”

Now, at the ripe old age of 19, Slat may have come up with a plan for doing just that. His ingenious design for a marine garbage trap, should it ever be realized, has the potential to capture nearly one-third of the 7.25 million metric tons of plastic currently floating atop the surface of our oceans.

Slat’s invention is essentially an anchored system of floating barriers and platforms that can be dispatched to some of the most notorious waterborne garbage patches, where plastics tend to accumulate in massive currents known as gyres. After being arranged so that they transect one of these gyres, the floating barriers can then be angled in such a way as to create a funneling effect—gradually directing debris toward the platforms, where it can then be stored before being transported to land-based recycling facilities.

Dubbed the Ocean Cleanup Array (and looking somewhat like a spaceship on a leash), the contraption would get all its energy from the sun, ocean currents, and waves. And since we know you’re about to ask: yes, Slat has designed the whole apparatus so that marine life can easily swim below it without getting caught up in any of its machinery.

Even though his innovative trash collector is still in the feasibility-study phase, the technology behind it has already garnered Slat a number of prizes. Kids these days, we swear.

The Ocean Cleanup Array

Image: Erwin Zwart/Fabrique Computer Graphics

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Kristen French graduated in May with a master of arts in science journalism from Columbia University. She has previously written for a number of publications in New York City and Santiago, Chile, including New York magazine, Guernica magazine and Prior to enrolling at Columbia, she was features editor of a business publication called Rep. magazine, found online at MORE STORIES ➔
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Don't get your hopes up about this. There are numerous practical reasons why the floating array is unfeasible. My friend Stiv Wilson has discussed this in the following article: