A Cure for Plastic in the Waterways

The worldwide scourge of plastic waste in the ocean may have finally met its match.

The nemesis of plastic is a 25-year-old Dutch college dropout by the name of Boyan Slat.

In Rotterdam over the weekend, Slat unveiled what may be the ultimate answer to the vast quantities of plastic throwaway that chokes the seas and kills its wildlife. He calls it the “Interceptor.”

The invention is a floating, solar-powered device that’s designed to be moored in rivers where it funnels plastic garbage into an opening in its bow; a conveyor belt then carries the trash into the machine where it is deposited in dumpsters. The interceptor sends a text message to local operators to come and empty it when it’s full, according to The Associated Press.

The path to the Interceptor has not been a straight one. Gathering up the plastic floating in the ocean might not sound like such a daunting technological challenge, compared to, say, running shuttles to and from outer space, but until now, a satisfactory solution has eluded environmental activists.

But that is exactly where efforts foundered: they tried to pick the plastic out of the oceans — after it got there. The innovation of the Interceptor is to catch the stuff before it gets there, while still in the rivers and streams that carry it out away from shore.

About seven years ago, Slat himself launched a precursor, aimed at collecting some significant portion of the estimated 9 million tons of plastic bottles, bags, toys and whatever else that finds its way into the oceans. (Famously compared to dumping a whole New York City garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean every minute of every day for an entire year!)

That device scarcely made a dent. Plastic continues to be found in more than 60 percent of all seabirds and in 100 percent of sea turtles species, who ingest it thinking it’s food.

As Slat told the AP, “We need to close the tap, which means preventing more plastic from reaching the ocean in the first place,” and calling rivers “the arteries that carry the trash from land to sea.”

Actually, this approach to scooping plastic from the seas is not without precedent. In Baltimore, a similar machine called Mr. Trash has been disposing of plastic in the city’s harbor for several years, according to the technology magazine Wired.

But that’s not to take credit away from the young Dutch slayer of plastic waste, whose Interceptor is meant to be mass-produced for use all over the world, whereas Mr. Trash was a strictly local idea. It’s also all-solar, which the Baltimore version is not.

Interceptors have already been put to work in Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam; the Dominican Republic has ordered one, too.

The pre-ocean intercept promises to be the most realistic and effective way to deal with plastic waste.

Recent efforts to curb the use of plastic — like banning plastic bags at checkout counters, and abolishing plastic straws and replacing them with paper ones, as Ikea just announced it plans to do in the cafeterias of its Israeli branches — may make environmentalists swell with pride. Aside from the fact that these efforts affect the quality of life for consumers, it will make little practical difference. Only a universal refraining of all disposable plastic, an unrealistic prospect, will significantly rid the oceans of plastic.

There aren’t enough nannies in government to coerce the citizenry into a strictly non-plastic way of life. You might as well try to teach the seabirds and turtles to go on a plastic-free diet.

The plastic problem is a typical example of how technology intended to make life easier produces unforeseen consequences. Yet, the inventiveness that led to plastic is now providing ways to deal with those consequences.

If Intercept works in the Asian Pacific and Baltimore, other cities on U.S. coastlines should also look into it.

The cost of the machines will likely frighten off many local officials (about $775,600), though the price should come down as production goes up.

Slat argued that the cost of allowing the plastic waste to continue flowing into the oceans will be higher than the cost of buying and operating the machines.

“Deploying interceptors is even cheaper than deploying nothing at all,” he said.