Human history has been a list of things that could not be done but then they were done! Two and a half years ago I stood on a similar stage in my home town, Delft in the Netherlands. There, I presented my idea on how to rid the oceans of plastic. I talked about how when diving in Greece I came across more plastic bags than fish and I also talked about my high school science project in which I studied the problem itself and why it is so difficult to clean-up this plastic.
It amazed me that in the middle of the oceans, over 1,000 miles off-shore, in a place where perhaps no human has ever been, you can find on average 6 times more plastic than plankton. It amazed me that over 100,000 mammals and over 1 million seabirds die each year because of that same plastic. It absolutely shocked me that entire species are being threatened by it. But what perhaps astounded me even more was that most people involved in this area were certain that a clean-up would be impossible even though nobody had ever seriously investigated it.
It is of course essential to first close the tap to prevent any more plastic from reaching the oceans in the first place. But that is not a solution to the plastics already trapped in the middle of the oceans. If feasible, a clean-up technique could greatly reduce the economic, ecological and health impacts in those regions. Besides, the natural loss of these plastics from the five concentration areas is likely very small so it hardly goes away by itself.
The challenge is massive however. Even though there is a high concentration of plastics in these five sub-tropical gyres (see image), it is still spread out over many million square kilometres. It would likely take about 79 thousand years and many billions of dollars to clean up just one of these areas. Bycatch and emissions from ships would cancel out the good work and in addition, the ocean isn’t a particularly friendly place to do things.
However, I realised back in high school that there might be an alternative. I wondered "why go through the oceans, when the oceans can go through you?" Instead of going after the plastics, you could simply wait for the plastic to come to you without requiring any added energy.
Boyan Slat, born in 1994, combines technology and entrepreneurship to tackle global issues of sustainability. He currently serves as the founder and CEO of The Ocean Cleanup. After diving in Greece aged 16, frustrated by coming across more plastic bags than fish, he wondered: "why can't we clean this up?" While still in secondary school, he decided to dedicate half a year of research to understand plastic pollution and the challenges associated with cleaning it up. This ultimately led to the passive cleanup concept, which he presented in 2012.
Focusing on proving the feasibility of his concept, in June 2014, having worked with an international team of 100 scientists and engineers for a year, the concept turned out to be "likely technically feasible and financially viable". A subsequent crowdfunding campaign then rose close to US$2.2 million, enabling the organisation to start the pilot phase.
In 2012, The Ocean Cleanup was awarded Best Technical Design at the Delft University of Technology. Boyan Slat has been recognised as one of the "20 Most Promising Young Entrepreneurs Worldwide", and is a laureate of the 2014 United Nations Champions for the Earth award.
©OECD Observer April 2015