Sparks

Boyan Slat, the plastic hunter

 By Veronica Guin

Boyan Slat is from Holland and is what would commonly be called “a precocious talent”…

Born in 1994, it is said that as a child, while his peers played with a pongo, Boyan would amuse himself by creating inventions and building objects. At the age of just 14, he won a Guinness World Record by launching 213 water rockets at the same time. The first of a long series of awards that Boyan would receive long before he turned 30.
As a child, Boyan always had a passion for diving and, during a dive in Greece, he realised that he saw much more plastic than fish in the sea. And this gave him an idea, as simple as it was difficult to realise: “Why don’t we clean up the oceans? Why, instead of educating and talking about respect for the environment, don’t we concretely commit ourselves to reparing the damage we have caused?”

Sculpture made with plastic waste by the artist Bonnie Louis Monteleone, based on the Japanese print “The great wave off Kanagawa”

But let’s take a step back. Every year about 8 million tons of plastic are thrown into the seas that, due to ocean currents, collect in 5 giant points, the so-called gyres. Charles Moore, the famous oceanographer and the man who first discovered the existence of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” (an enormous floating island of waste twice as big as Texas) estimated that, it would take approximately 79,0000 years to clean the oceans completely of all plastic materials. All of which is causing serious damage to marine ecosystems: millions of living species are at risk and millions of fish and seabirds have already died because of this pollution. Not to mention the damage it also causes to human health: fish feed on the plastic waste that infests the seas, ingesting toxic components that then enter our food chain when they end up on our plates.

There are five different major ocean currents on the planet (whatarethe7continents.com)

Returning from Greece, Boyan began to think of a solution to clean the seas before it is too late. His idea was to exploit the ocean’s currents to clean them of all the plastic that is destroying the ecosystem.
By studying a possible solution, he realised that the main problems to be faced in order to develop a truly effective technology were basically four:

  1. Cleaning the oceans of all the existing plastic would mean “tackling” 5 giant areas, each in constant motion;
  2. The scale of the plastic in the sea varies from large fishing nets to tiny particles the size of plankton;
  3. Should it prove possible to collect all the plastic in sea, it would then have to be brought back to the mainland with not insignificant economic costs;
  4. The real amount of waste at sea is still, unfortunately unknown.
Seabirds swallow small plastic objects by mistaking them for food (Chris Jordan)

Thanks to an open choice school project, Boyan had the opportunity to develop a project for cleaning the seas. Together with some of his project partners, he went back to Greece with a manta trawl 15 times thinner than a traditional one so as not to risk affecting the plankton that populates the seas. With the help of this tool, Boyan understood that the presence of small plastic particles is, approximately, 40 times greater than large plastic objects. Since another problem is that we do not know how deep down plastic waste reaches, the young inventor’s idea was to create a Multilevel Trawl. Unfortunately, his first experiment didn’t work and the “10-story trawl” re-surfaced from the water completely destroyed.
He went back to work consulting scientists, professors and experts from the Universities of Delft, Utrecht and Hawaii and he studied a system of floating barriers (booms) attached to the seabed which, by exploiting the currents – and thus minimizing transport costs – filter the waste and collect it on a platform. This was in 2012 and Boyan presented his idea to the world, at just 18, in his first TEDx Talk in Delft.

How the oceans can clean themselves: Boyan Slat at TEDxDelft

Six months later, in 2013, he decided to abandon his studies in Aerospace Engineering at the Technical University of Delft to found his own company, Ocean Cleanup, with an initial capital of €300. The same year, the video of his TED Talk went viral and was seen by thousands of people all over the world and he manages to collect $90,000 thanks to a crowdfunding initiative. And this is where the Ocean Cleanup project takes off. In the following year, a team of 100 volunteer researchers conducted feasibility studies to understand if the initial idea could really be put into practice.

Boyan Slat on The Ocean Cleanup

2014 was also the year of a financial breakthrough as, thanks to the support of 380,000 people in 160 different countries, the Ocean Cleanup team was able to raise $2 million in 100 days. Also in the same year, Boyan became the youngest person ever to receive the “United Nations Champions of the Earth” award. The following year he received from His Majesty Harald V of Norway the Young Entrepreneur Award in the maritime industry category and was included in TIME magazine’s list of the best inventions of 2015 and Forbes magazine’s prestigious list of 30 under 30 in 2016 .
But in these years of research and recognitions, what has been concretely achieved? Sometimes one fears that such “prodigies” make a momentary splash, but then, after the initial clamour, fall into oblivion. But, Boyan is a serious guy, and after 3 years of uninterrupted study and design, on 22 June 2016, Ocean Cleanup deployed its first 100 metre-long barrier around 23 km off the coast of the Netherlands. It is a prototype and the data collected during tests in the North Sea allowed the engineers of Ocean Cleanup to replace the standard inflatable floats for the collection of oil, with rigid HDPE tubes.
On 29 August 2017, Boyan announced that the “machine” design had undergone substantial improvements from the first prototype in the North Sea and had moved from a moored to a floating system and that Ocean Cleanup is now preparing to launch its first complete operating system in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by the end of 2018. Boyon estimates that, with this technology, it will be possible to clean up the ocean in 5 years. In Italian we say “make way for the young”. So, good luck, friend of the seas!

Deploying The Ocean Cleanup - Simulation

READ MORE: Road to bioplastic by Michelle Leslie

about the author
Veronica Guin