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Civil Engineer blog

The Ocean Cleanup approach: focus, fail, and forbear 

15 July 2019

Removing plastic pollution from the gyres in remote parts of the world’s oceans is a hugely challenging and novel task on a massive scale. Lonneke Holierhoek, Chief Operating Officer, The Ocean Cleanup, describes how the organisation's methodology is achieving results.

The Ocean Cleanup approach: focus, fail, and forbear 
The Ocean Cleanup system in action.

The Ocean Cleanup is designing and building a passive cleanup technology for the offshore environment, namely the subtropical gyres, the places in the oceans where vast amounts of plastic accumulate and persist.

Plastic in the gyres is slowly degrading into smaller pieces and hence poses immense risks for marine life, human life, and economies worldwide. Thus, our mission: develop advanced technologies to rid the world’s oceans of this plastic.

Nothing like this has ever been done before, as this endeavour isn't easy.

The problem of ocean plastic pollution is inherently complex. From the causes and sources to the intrinsic combination of oceanography, hydrodynamics, meteorology, and physics that must be considered when designing structures for the ocean.

Solving this problem requires us to continually delve deeper and learn more about these many facets and, as we've come to understand, this is especially complicated. It's so much so that it could leave us to wonder if we'll ever fully comprehend every intricacy of what we're doing.

But we're not deterred. Doubt is a roadblock we cannot permit. To stay on our path and maintain confidence in this massive undertaking, we perform our work using a strict, simple set of guidelines: focus, fail, and forbear.

Working with these three principles, we persevere through uncertainty, find learning opportunities in every setback, and know when to step away from something. Each guideline compliments the other and facilitates our ambitious and important mission.


Engineering solutions for complex problems can only be accomplished with extreme focus.

If you try to do everything at once, you succeed at nothing. In all of the work we do at The Ocean Cleanup, we keep the focus on one single, specific problem – the accumulating plastic in the world’s garbage patches. We have set out to do this with the elegant philosophy to work with nature, rather than against it, in the design of our technology.

Addressing the use and improper disposal of plastic is another way to go about solving the problem.

Plastic is a useful tool for many industries, but why isn’t it reduced, reused, or even valued? Change is needed on a global scale to stop plastic from ever entering the world’s waterways and to truly eradicate this problem indefinitely.

We have knowledge and understanding in this domain, but we accept that we cannot put our energy into this now. In order to achieve our mission, we keep our focus on our technology.


As the problem of ocean plastic pollution needs to be solved speedily, we've committed to quick iteration cycles; in other words, we fail fast and learn fast.

We're pioneering this technology, so we're continually learning throughout the process and we often learn much more from the failures than the achievements.

Our technology has endured an array of engineering challenges, and some might see the issues we have faced with our prototypes or our first system, Wilson, as failure, but we see them as opportunities. With every setback, we gather knowledge, adapt, and advance. To us, failure leads to success.


The more we learn, the more we realise what we don’t know, but scientists and engineers (who make up most of our team) are programmed to always further investigate the unknown; therefore, we need to proactively decide what we'll study and what we must set aside for another time or another expert.

To stay focused, we must refrain ourselves. Although we all feel the sense of urgency of the problem, we understand that we cannot solve everything.

For example, technologies should be developed to make better (re)use of plastic, but, at present, the economics of creating new plastic is preferred to the reuse of existing plastic or even developing alternative products.

This, among many, is an initiative that we must forebear in order to not lose sight of our goals. It's tempting to learn more about this aspect of our work; but, instead, we conduct research to further our mission and we share this knowledge with the wider scientific community – hopefully helping better-equipped experts find solutions.

We will, however, continue to pursue our mission of ridding the world’s oceans of plastic by means of passive cleanup technologies. To achieve this necessary goal, we will focus, fail, and forbear.

  • Lonneke Holierhoek, Chief Operating Officer, The Ocean Cleanup