Illustration of what the ocean cleanup machine will look like

Dutch 20 Year Old Cleans Up the Ocean

3 minutes read

Boyan Slat pioneers method of extracting plastic debris from the sea

When 16 year-old Boyan Slat became aware of the huge amount of plastic debris floating around in the oceans in 2011, while diving in Greece, where he saw more plastic bags than fish, he didn’t just dream about doing something about it, he started developing a method of getting it out of the water. Now four years later Ocean Cleanup is a developing technology which may help clean up our oceans.

There is an entire continent’s worth of plastic swilling round in the Pacific, so large a mass that it can be seen from space. Most of this comes from waste and sewage – discarded plastic bags, toys, plastic bottles and cups, packaging, 10% of all the plastic produced ends up in the sea. It kills millions of birds, fish, massive numbers of sea-going creatures like turtles and penguins, who choke on it, as well as polluting our food – micro-pellets of plastic have been found in shellfish. Would you want to eat that?

Because it is thinly spread out over thousands of miles, the plastic waste in the oceans has been seen as difficult, if not impossible to clean up.

Boyan Slat at 16 with his designs
Boyan Slat at 16 with his designs

Dutch schoolboy Boyan Slat didn’t see it like that. For a school project Slat developed his idea further.  “I wondered; why move through the oceans, if the oceans can move through you? By attaching a system of long floating arms to the seabed, the oceans could basically clean themselves.” An array of floating barriers, anchored to the sea bed, would first catch and concentrate the floating debris. The plastic would move along the barriers towards a platform, where it could then be efficiently extracted. The ocean current would pass underneath the barriers, taking all buoyant sea life with it. There would be no emissions, and no nets for marine life to get entangled in. The collected ocean plastic would be recycled and made into products. It won Best Technical Design at Delft University of Technology.

But Slat wasn’t finished with the idea. He wanted to put it into practice. He dropped out of studying aerospace engineering to get sponsorship for building a prototype. His budget consisted of all he could save: 200 Euros (£160). Nobody was interested in what seemed a wild scheme.

Then his TedX talk went viral in 2013. “It was unbelievable,” he says. “Suddenly we got hundreds of thousands of people clicking on our site every day. I received about 1,500 emails per day in my personal mailbox from people volunteering to help.” He set up a crowd-funding platform that made $80,000 in 15 days. Soon he could start to work, putting together a team of 100 people, mostly volunteers, spread out all over the globe, and also visiting the North Atlantic Garbage Patch, to see it for himself.

Boyan Slat now
Boyan Slat now

The results were encapsulated in a 530 page peer-reviewed report. It concludes Slat’s method is a technically and financially viable technology. Slat and his group then raised over $2.1 million through crowd-funding, making it the most successful crowd-funding project in history.  Now they are embarking on the next stage of the development work. The aim is to have machines working to clean up the Pacific Garbage Patch within ten years.

All images copyright The Ocean Cleanup

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