Boyan Slat is the 27-year-old founder and CEO of The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit organization whose mission is to clean up 90% of floating plastic in the world’s waterways by 2040. It all started when Boyan was 16 years old and on a vacation in Greece. He was scuba diving and noticed that there were more plastics bags than fish in the ocean and he had a simple thought: “why don’t we just clean it up?” This led him to do research into plastic pollution and why it was deemed impossible to clean up for his school science project. What he learned was that there were 5 garbage patches collecting the world’s plastic waste in the oceans where the currents converge and that the traditional ways of thinking for collecting it-using boats and nets-would take thousands of years and have a detrimental impact on the marine life and carbon emissions.
He continued to think outside of the box and developed an idea of using the ocean currents to bring the plastic to a fixed platform in the ocean that would then filter out and collect the plastic while allowing the marine wildlife to safe swim under the platform and its components eliminating bycatches-which is what happens when wildlife that is not the target of the fishermen get caught in the fishing lines and nets. The platforms would be self-sufficient running on solar power and power generated from the water currents. And would be able to remove the equivalent of 55 cargo containers of plastic a day! And if the collected plastic was sold it would generate hundreds of millions of dollars making ocean clean-up a profitable endeavour. This is when he realized: “Only when we realize that change is more important than money, money will come.” He shared this idea in a TedX talk in 2012 after he graduated from high school.
He continued to work on his idea while at university but after 6 months of study he decided to quit, and he started The Ocean Cleanup with only 300 euros in savings. In early 2013, his TedX talk went viral and enabled him to start a crowdfunding campaign which generated $90,000USD which enabled him to really start the work of bringing his idea to life. In 2015, while still researching the oceanic plastic in the Great Pacific and North Atlantic garbage patches the team began researching and developing methods for diverting the plastic in the river systems before they reach the ocean as they knew to clean up the oceans, they would not only have to remove the plastic that was already there but to also prevent more plastic from entering the oceans. Since then, they have successfully created, tested, and modified a system called the Interceptor to remove the plastic waste from rivers they have successfully launched two Interceptors in two rivers in the Netherlands and Malaysia.
As far as the ocean cleanup is concerned Boyan and his team have created and launched three systems (001, 001/B & 002) and are currently developing System 003 which will allow for more scalability and effectiveness in collecting floating plastic. System 001/B was successful in collecting plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in October of 2019 which proved that the original concept from the TedX talk worked! That plastic catch was then recycled and turned into their first product: The Ocean Cleanup sunglasses. Another proof of concept actualized. The money from the sale of the sunglasses was put directly back into the company to further the development and research needed to scale the system where it needs to be to fulfill the goal of removing 90% of the plastic in the ocean by 2040.
We acknowledge and honour Boyan and his team for taking an obvious question: “why don’t we clean it up?” and applying out-of-the-box thinking to develop a solution to this man-made problem that has a detrimental impact on all animals in the food chain including humans. Being kind to the planet often requires innovative thinking which challenges the status quo and once again Boyan is an example that such thinking will come from the young people and teens of the world.