The survival of the human race may depend on our ability to develop sustainable technologies. Given this, the Earth urgently needs bright young talent to address the big environmental challenges of the day. Enter Boyan Slat, a 21-year-old entrepreneur with a potentially game-changing vision.
The biosphere is an interdependent system composed of many moving parts. One of its key components is the hydrosphere – the sum total of all water on the Earth’s surface, including the oceans, which are the prehistoric source of planetary life and home to an estimated two million-plus species.
Oceans regulate our climate and are vital to almost all aspects of human life. More than one in seven people derive their primary protein from fish, and tens of millions of people rely on the sea for employment. What’s more, the oceans have superb recreational value; who doesn’t like a day at the beach, for example?
Out of sight, out of mind. Or is it? Humans discard approximately eight million tons of plastic into the ocean annually. At the point where ocean currents meet in massive rotating vortices called gyres, our trash gathers into giant floating “garbage patches”. Yuck.
“It amazed me,” Slat told Angel Gurría, “that in the middle of the oceans, over a thousand miles off-shore, in a place perhaps no human has ever been, you can find six times more plastic than plankton.” After seeing a greater number of plastic bags than fish during a diving trip in Greece, he committed himself to clearing up the Earth’s oceanic garbage.
Plastic pollution is responsible for the deaths of at least 100,000 sea mammals and one million seabirds each year. Moreover, clearing our trash will save the lives of many of these creatures and directly help to prevent the extinction of at least 100 species, including the iconic loggerhead sea turtle.
Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are another grave threat to the oceans. These chemicals do not break down in nature but instead build up to dangerously high levels as they travel up the food chain. POPs are the reason why industrial by-products can end up in the blood of a polar pear – or a human being on a far continent.
Plastic pollution furthermore carries economic as well as health and environmental costs. Industries such as fishing, tourism and shipping are hit to the tune of $13 billion each year. In the U.S. alone, the cost of cleaning debris from the country’s Pacific beaches runs to $500 million annually.
Slat began searching for a solution. Despite never having engineered anything before, he built a DIY garbage collection device and deployed it in the Mediterranean Sea. He collected data, crunched the numbers and in 2012, at a TEDx talk in Delft, the Netherlands, presented a proposal for a scaled-up ocean cleanup solution.
The response from the scientific community was, however, cold. His solution would never work, they said. Still, undeterred, Slat sacrificed his university place and established a foundation – The Ocean Cleanup. He also got in touch with 300 firms for sponsorship, but only one replied. It turned out to be a dead end.
Slat’s project seemed to be going nowhere, until suddenly, a year after his presentation, his TED talk went viral. And as word spread of his proposal, he set up a crowd-funding campaign and gathered together a team of 100 personnel, including 70 engineers and scientists.
Their first task was to conduct an extensive feasibility study. In order to answer 50 questions from professionals in the fields of engineering, ecology, oceanography, maritime law, finance and recycling, the team designed and assembled working prototypes of Slat’s invention.
Slat’s innovative solution – a floating barrier that passively skims plastic from the ocean surface – harnesses the ocean currents to do the work. A solar-powered tower with a slurry pump and mesh conveyor belt collects the plastic for sorting and recycling later.
It took Slat and his team a year to complete their feasibility study. Published in 2014, the final document ran to 530 pages and was bound in covers made from recycled plastic. Slat had successfully rebuffed his critics and set out the how, where and why of his solution.
Moreover, Slat’s invention has since received numerous international design awards. Costing approximately $5 per two pounds of waste, his method of ocean cleanup would prove economically feasible, too – costing roughly 3 percent of competing proposals.
In the second quarter of 2016, Slat plans to deploy the first full-scale pilot of his ocean clean-up array in the waters off Tsushima island in Japan. Running for 1.24 miles, it will be the longest floating structure ever installed on the ocean.
Five years from now, Slat’s project will culminate in the deployment of a 62-mile array in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California. He believes it could clean up as much as 42 percent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in a decade – that’s roughly 78,000 tons of discarded plastic permanently removed from the ocean.
Extracting plastic waste from the ocean is only part of the solution, though. Slat says that in order to maintain ocean cleanliness, public awareness of the problem needs to be increased. “Prevention,” he has said, “is an essential part of stopping plastic pollution.”
Another important aspect of the solution is preventing discarded plastic from reaching the ocean in the first place. Looking ahead, Slat is already thinking about new river-based technologies designed to intercept waste en route to the sea.
“Human history is basically a list of things that couldn’t be done, and then were done,” Slat has stated. It will be some time before we find out whether his idea can be made into a reality, but if it can, he will have solved one of the planet’s most pressing environmental problems. Passion, perseverance, compassion and ingenuity are the substance of his story.