The Miserable, Misogynist Failure of Boyan Slat’s Ocean Cleanup

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Late last year, a bold new venture was launched to finally clean the plastic out of our oceans. It’s called Ocean Cleanup, and it’s basically a giant net that floats around the ocean corralling trash for easier removal. Brilliant! And it was all designed and launched by a genius named Boyan Slat who gave a TEDx talk about it when he was only 18. Incredible!

Unfortunately, within months of its launch (from right here in San Francisco Bay, I should mention), it completely broke down and is now being towed to Hawaii where it will be repaired and/or reconsidered.

Oh gosh, if only someone had seen this disaster coming. If only someone, somewhere had said pointed out that the Ocean Cleanup barrier “was designed based on mean ocean current speeds, and not maximum speeds, leaving the very real potential that this barrier could almost immediately upon deployment turn into the largest piece of ocean garbage in the world.”

Oh hold on….

Yeah, fucking everybody knew this was going to happen. As I pointed out way back in 2015, actual oceanographers Dr. Miriam Goldstein and Dr. Kim Martini delivered an extremely detailed report on the original feasibility study offered by Ocean Cleanup, clearly explaining the myriad ways that it just was not going to work. They were ignored.

Actually, stet that, they weren’t just ignored, they were dismissed. The Washington Post pointed out that when an interviewer brought up their concerns to Slat, he said that they weren’t engineers so they didn’t know what they were talking about. In an odd twist, when a male oceanographer pointed out some of the problems with the design just this month, Slat personally thanked him on Twitter for offering “a constructive rather than emotive critique for once” and said his engineers would reach out to said male oceanographer. I’m sure there’s no sexism there, it’s just that when two extremely well-qualified female scientists write in-depth fact-based critical review that clearly states they want the project to succeed and so they decided to lay out the barriers Ocean Cleanup would face on their way to success before the project gets underway is “emotive,” while when a male scientist writes a blog post with memes in it using similar points but months after the project failed it’s “constructive.” Yeah, that sounds right.

Not to dismiss Clark Richards’s post on Ocean Cleanup’s failure — it is interesting if you’re into the finer details of ocean dynamics. It’s just…this is why it’s still hard to be a woman in science. Two women are completely dismissed for not being engineers and for being “emotive” while a man who does much, much less and much, much too late gets an actual meeting with the engineers in charge of the project. That’s fucked.

Unfortunately, Ocean Cleanup’s failure doesn’t mean the end of the project. They have too much money and too much ego to give it up now. They’re going to make small changes to their stupid design and try again, wasting more money and more time and again, they’re just making more trash that will end up in the ocean. A 6,500-foot piece of trash.

That money could be going to stopping plastic from ending up in the ocean in the first place. You know, you generally don’t worry about what to do with all the sewage in your bathroom while it’s still gushing out of the toilet. First, you stop the shit pouring out. Then you clean it up. Luckily, smarter people than Boyan Slat are working on that by enacting plastic bag bans, cleaning up our beaches, and using ingenious wheels to stop trash from washing out to sea in the first place. I don’t expect Slat to pay attention to this video what with it being so “emotive”, but I hope that the rest of you know better now than to give your time or money to a doomed ego trip.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Engineers sexist? Hold the phone! No shit! XD

    Seriously this whole plastic bag addiction is a relatively recent development, starting in the early nineties.
    Before that we all used to get paper bags from the supermarket.
    It was the usual thing of trying to shave a few lousy cents off the cost per customer.

    This environmental clusterfuck is easy to roll back, given the will to do so. We have the technology!

  2. I would like you to recant this piece of garbage post. Are you going to do so? The Ocean Cleanup did not fail in 2019; it experienced a setback, they engineered a solution, and now the system(s) are functioning well —

    Cleaning up plastic waste is not a misogynistic exercise; it’s a necessary and human one. Dr. Martini essentially fabricated an argument out of incomplete, outdated studies and thin air, possibly for her own notoriety or because she has been paid by plastic or fishing industries, but you want to make this about the patriarchy?
    Ocean Cleanup did their research and found that Dr. Martini is completely out to lunch —

    P.S.: the Ocean Cleanup is working. What are you doing to make the world a better place? It’s plainly apparent what you’re doing to make it worse.

    P.P.S.: the Ocean Cleanup team includes female scientists, engineers, managers, advisors, and team members, so put down your knives. And ditch the single-use plastic —

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