This year, Boyan Slat turned 20. Although very young, he has already spent several years developing a solution to the millions of tons of plastic in the ocean. After diving in Greece at the age of 16, Slat was disgusted by the amount of garbage he saw and spent the next six months studying plastic pollution and developing a solution.
In 2012, Slat, along with a team he had built of 100 scientists and engineers, presented his passive cleanup concept. By this time, he was enrolled in an aerospace engineering program but soon dropped out to devote all of his time and energy to his project, dubbed Ocean Cleanup.
One year later, Slat and his team came out with a 530 page report demonstrating the technological and financial viability of the project. To get the funding he needed to start the pilot phase, Slat started a crowdfunding operation and within 100 days had received $2.2 million from 38,000 people in 160 different countries.
Slat’s idea is to place several floating arms with nets dropping 3 meters below the surface of the water. The technology will trap plastic while allowing sea life to swim safely below. Positioning is key. The netting must be in the path of the powerful ocean currents which govern the movement of the plastic around the globe. This is no small task, however, as each arm will be 30 miles long.
Despite its ambition, Slat’s project has shown no signs of slowing down. Ocean Cleanup expects the first pilot to be in position within one year, and have a fully operation set up in one of five ocean gyres within three years.
Each gyre represents a massive undertaking. Heavy currents circulate profuse amounts of trash and span hundreds of miles. Nonetheless, computer simulations show that the floating barriers will be able to collect 42% of all plastic within a gyre within 10 years of initial setup. But it won’t come cheap. The estimated cost of cleanup in one gyre is close to $400 million, or $5.67 per kilogram of plastic.
This effort is so critical because of the many ways plastic is detrimental to the ocean environment and its inhabitants. Marine organisms can become entangled in plastic debris, causing “injury, illness, suffocation, starvation, and even death.” Small pieces of plastic are often ingested, leading to “malnutrition, intestinal blockage and death.” And in addition, plastics are produced from petroleum, natural gas, or coal and a toxic cocktail of chemicals like polyethylene terephthalate (makes it virtually impossible for plastic to biodegrade) and bisphenol-A, the latter of which is known for its carcinogenic properties. When organisms ingest plastic and digest it, these chemicals move up the food chain, increasing in concentration and thus toxicity through biomagnification. Every year, “one million seabirds and hundreds of thousands of marine mammals die” from this pollution.
Thanks to Slat’s efforts, this could change very soon.