The Dutch wonder boy Boyan Slat has overcome great odds—not least his tender age—and kept afloat his unconventional idea for how to clean the oceans
When the Dutch teenager Boyan Slat, then 16, saw alarming quantities of plastic floating in the Aegean Sea while diving on a Greek family vacation in 2011, he thought—like many others would—that something must be done.
But because Slat is not like most people, he has actually come up with a potential solution.
"Once I’m working on something, I only stop when it is done," he said, sitting in the Delft offices of The Ocean Cleanup, the non-profit organization he founded to rid the world’s oceans of plastic.
After noticing the debris in Greece, Slat embarked on a high school project with a partner, trying to measure plastic pollution in the North Sea. Though the exercise yielded little useful data—the measuring tool the teens built broke in the ocean’s current—it did result in a good grade and a notice in a small Delft newspaper.
An organizer for the local TEDx Talk asked Slat to present his findings, so he fleshed out his idea: rather than actively fishing for plastic with nets, he proposed a passive clean-up system using the natural movement of currents and the wind to trap garbage against a barrier.
His talk was well-received, and he has since assembled a team of close to 100 experts—offshore engineers, maritime legal experts, ecologists, marine biologists—to test, optimize, and develop his system. Many are working pro bono. A full-time, mostly Dutch team of around 10 oversee and coordinate the work.
Their solution is a V-shaped floating boom that reaches about 3 meters under the surface of the water. It captures the plastic that drifts into it while leaving wildlife unscathed, then channels the plastic into a solar-powered extracting platform.
The goal is to install the system by 2020 midway between California and Hawaii, close to the North Pacific Garbage Patch. Estimated to cost around US $300 million (Slat claims that would be 33 times cheaper than using vessels with nets), the contraption extends roughly 100 km. The set-up could be replicated elsewhere.
By assembling a team to build what is essentially a sophisticated vacuum cleaner and dustpan, Slat has shown the power of a determined outsider who is willing to ask the right people for help. In the last year alone, he says he has sent out roughly 13,000 emails.
"When a young man of 17 years comes to you and tells you his plan, it is rather shocking, because many people have tried to do this," said Dr. Santiago Garcia Espallargas, from the faculty of aerospace engineering at the elite Technical University of Delft.
Slat had attended one of Garcia’s talks at the university and presented his ideas in the subsequent question period. "His vocabulary of topic was of course not very well developed," Garcia said. "But he was totally open to exploring things he didn’t know about…Here was this really young student coming up with ideas that could change the world."
Once Slat’s cleanup project started to take shape and garner media attention, experts came knocking at his door. "Those most eager to help are the ones who see the problem firsthand, like sailors and divers," said Jan de Sonneville, The Ocean Cleanup’s lead engineer.
Though estimates vary, Greenpeace believes that each year 10 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean. Eighty percent comes from land, while the rest is from commercial ships that lose their cargo or illegally dump. Pushed by currents, it tends to accumulate in large patches, far out at sea. The biggest is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which Greenpeace says is the size of Texas. In addition to affecting birds, mammals, and fish who swallow or entangle themselves in the plastic, the trash eventually breaks down into fragments, creating a toxic soup that enters the food chain.
Slat’s project has engendered some skepticism. One of the main criticisms is that the boom will not be able to catch the smallest fragments. (De Sonneville points out that it still captures plastic before it breaks down.) This spring, the Ocean Cleanup released a 530-page feasibility study outlining the challenges and solutions of its proposal in great detail—from the legal implications of anchoring a garbage extractor in the Pacific to the ways that found plastic can be recycled.
At the time of this writing, the group had amassed nearly 70 percent of its latest crowdfunding goal, US $2 million. That money, along with in-kind contributions—such as the free use of specialized equipment or hours worked by expert engineers—will pay for the pilot study, including several scale models of the system.
Though much has been made of Slat’s youth, he seems to find nothing unusual in organizing such an ambitious project. "It wasn’t like we planned on [my age] being a PR tool," he said. But he did concede that it helped him gain access to experts during the early stages. "If I was 40 years old, I think it would have been a lot more difficult." (Christopher F. Schuetze, Sparknews, France)