No doubt all of us are growing tired of walking along our beautiful beaches and spotting the occasional plastic bottle bobbing over the waves, beer can half-buried in the shore, or plastic bag being brought in with the sea foam.
This garbage many of us have to pick up and move out of the way of our beach towels are some of the 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans. With our rubbish being incredibly damaging to marine life, it’s unfortunate that plastic is as common a sight as fish nowadays, in fact, scientists predict plastics will outweigh all fish species in our oceans by 2050.
While this is a damning and upsetting issue, we were surprised to discover that there are so many people doing truly incredible and innovative things to clean up our oceans. While large media companies would prefer to shine a light on controversial and nutty environmental protesting, the people that truly deserve the world’s attention are those taking action and providing hope and inspiration for others to do the same. One of these incredible people is young Dutch inventor and entrepreneur, Boyan Slat.
In 2011, Boyan was also tired of spotting rubbish on the beaches of his home, so, at the age of 16, when most of us were still figuring out how to socialise, he decided to do something about the world’s devastating ocean pollution.
Driven by his shock in seeing more plastic than fish while scuba diving one day, Boyan said he came up with an idea for a strategic and energy-efficient solution to rid the world of large garbage patches floating in the middle of the ocean.
“I wondered why we couldn’t just clean it up, and that rather simple question stuck in my head.
“This plastic doesn’t go away by itself, and to just let hundreds of thousands of tons of plastic be out there fragmenting into these small and dangerous microplastics to me seems like an unacceptable scenario,” he said.
While cleaning up ocean garbage is easy when it washes up on our shore, it is not so much when it is stuck circling in currents thousands of kilometres away from land. So, Boyan’s solution was to create long barriers to concentrate the plastic and act as artificial coastlines where there is none.
“I envisioned an extremely long network of floating barriers, they’re like curtains floating in the ocean which are attached to the seabed. So what happens is the current comes around and because it’s in a V-shape, the plastic gets pushed towards the centre.
“I came up with the idea of a curtain, not a net, so there’s nothing sea life can get entangled with. The system would also move very slowly, around 4 inches per second on average. So the chances of sea life being harmed were very minimal,” he said.
At the age of 17, when most of us were having nightmares about public speaking, Boyan presented his idea in a TEDx talk in the city of Delft in the Netherlands. In 2013, his passion and determination led him to drop out of an aerospace engineering course at the Delft University of Technology. It was at this point that he founded the non-profit organisation The Ocean Cleanup, which currently has a HQ in Rotterdam.
Boyan said it was a challenge in the CEO role at the start of the organisation, but despite his many failed attempts at creating a working prototype, and his ironic problem of getting badly seasick, he eventually created System 001, the first ocean clean-up system, in September 2018.
“When I started there was this consensus that you could never clean this up, that the problem is way too big, the ocean is way too rough, the issue of bycatch – ‘plastic is too big, plastic is too small’.
“It was a feat we were pleasantly surprised to achieve. When people say something is impossible, the sheer absoluteness of that statement should be a motivation to investigate further,” he said.
In 2021, the team at The Ocean Cleanup, consisting of 120 engineers, researchers, scientists and more, made Boyan’s concepts into a reality with the new and improved System 002, which is currently harvesting every little bit of rubbish across kilometres of open ocean, including tiny 1-millimetre microplastics.
Boyan said the trash collected by the clean-up system is dumped on the ships pulling the barriers and brought back to shore once a month, where it is processed and recycled into new products. Using the ocean plastic, the organisation created and sold sunglasses, with 100 percent of the proceeds going back towards their clean-up efforts.
“We have been able to recycle it into a high quality, useful product; something which was always considered impossible because of the complex nature of ocean plastic.
“But there is something else we tried to achieve with this model, to show how plastic can be used responsibly. What we’ve been able to accomplish with these sunglasses I hope will already raise the bar of what it means for a product to be sustainable,” he said.
Thanks to the persistence and passion of Boyan, The Ocean Cleanup has successfully cleansed over 500,000 football fields worth of ocean. On top of this, they have also collected over 100,000 kilograms of trash from the largest build-up of ocean plastics on earth, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Boyan said they started solely concentrating on cleaning up the garbage patch because they felt it was the most neglected environmental problem of them all.
“The waste is mostly in international waters that are sort of in no man’s land and thus considered to be not one nation’s problem.
“It’s a very strange experience to be four or five days from the closest point of land, and you see more plastic than you have in your life,” Boyan said.
Not only does The Ocean Cleanup believe in removing plastics from the oceans, but also in halting the trash flow from the rivers, which are the main source of ocean plastic pollution. Boyan said the rivers are the arteries that carry waste from the land to the ocean, and that preventing pollution is just as important as cleaning it up.
“We absolutely need to clean up the plastic that’s already in the ocean. It won’t go away by itself. But we do also need to make sure that no more plastic enters the oceans in the first place. These things should go hand in hand,” he said.
In 2017 the organisation invented the Interceptor 001, a river clean-up system that is placed at the mouths of rivers and completely stops the flow of rubbish to our oceans. Today, multiple iterations of the technology are placed in various locations across Malaysia, USA, Indonesia, and more. The organisation hopes to eventually install versions of the Interceptor across the 1000 top polluting rivers that are responsible for roughly 80 percent of ocean pollution.
The Ocean Cleanup is currently conceptualising the third iteration of the clean-up system that is planned to completely rid our ocean of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. System 03 will be comprised of three vessels hauling a huge 2,500-meter-wide barrier system and will also rely on drones to locate garbage hot spots. Over the next few months the organisation is planning on creating a fleet of 10 System 03’s. A massive project to say the least.
With their innovative new technology, Ocean Cleanup boldly aims to remove 90 percent of floating plastic by 2040. The non-profit organisation is solely funded through donations and sponsorships, and hopefully when the media sorts out its environmental priority issues, more people will be exposed to the wonderful work that Boyan has done, and more people will be inspired to donate or find solutions of their own to keep those annoying plastic bottles off of our beaches.
“It will be very hard to convince everyone in the world to handle their plastics responsibly, but what we humans are very good in, is inventing technical solutions to our problems.
“For society to progress, we should not only move forward but also clean up after ourselves,” he said.