Despite a recent setback, Boyan Slat, founder of The Ocean Cleanup, is determined to tackle the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
By the time he was two years old, Boyan Slat had already designed and built a chair. Treehouses and ziplines swiftly followed. By age eight, he had moved on to rockets and computers. His parents, an artist and an expat relocation consultant, were baffled but delighted at their son’s prodigious engineering instinct and allowed him full reign of the living room for increasingly convoluted projects.
“Is it a gift? It feels quite innate. I’ve always been passionate about technology,” he explains over the phone from his birth town of Delft in The Netherlands. He has lived there his whole 24 years since. “Maybe that’s a bit boring?” he asks, as though seeking reassurance. I say that his life is anything but boring.
Slat was 16 when he was snorkelling on holiday in Greece and discovered more plastic in the sea than fish. In typical fashion, he didn’t get upset or angry. He decided to fix it.
“I’m a rationalist: the way I make my decisions are based on simple cost-benefit analyses rather than emotion,” he explains. “And this presented itself as an interesting engineering challenge.” What started as part of a high-school project focused on cleaning ocean plastic progressed into an idea he shared on TedX, to use the power of ocean currents with nets to clean to ocean. The talk went viral, he quit university, and in 2013 he launched non-profit The Ocean Cleanup.
Six years later and the plan has begun to unfold. Last September Slat and his team deployed System 001 (nicknamed ‘Wilson’) into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, launching it from San Francisco. Essentially a 600 x 3m floating net to capture and contain debris, the entire system is powered without external energy. The idea is that once it collected enough debris — Slat says around 15 tonnes — it will be hauled back to land. From there, the plastic will be sorted and shipped to Europe to be recycled into consumer products.
“Using the rubbish, we want to make high-quality durable products through which we can create a revenue stream,” he explains. “There is so much you could do with it, even though it’s very degraded.”
Slat is tight-lipped on what products exactly will be created from the debris, but he hopes that it will ultimately fund the next stage of The Ocean Cleanup: another 59 of these systems, priced around €5 million each. These will be needed to achieve his aim of eliminating at least 50 percent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: a pile of floating debris estimated to stretch 1.6 million square kilometres between Hawaii and California, within the next five years. His ultimate goal is to cut marine plastic by 90 percent by 2040.
However this is still a long way off, given that in December, to the surprise of the onshore engineering team and the offshore crew, part of System 001 broke off and started floating away. He said in a blog post, "we are of course, a bit bummed about this." It’s currently being fixed in the assembly yard in California. But Slat regards this as an inevitable part of such an outlandish exercise and is undeterred. “We aim to be back in the Patch in the second half of May,” he says.
So far, Slat has not struggled to attract donors for his cause. The initial research and development was financed through crowdfunding US$2 million in 2014. Since then it has received over US$31.5 million in donations from sponsors, including Salesforce.com chief executive Marc Benioff, philanthropist Peter Thiel, the Julius Baer Foundation and Royal DSM.
It should come as no surprise that he creates a sense of confidence. Environmental campaigns are often fought with a strong emotional component that inevitably makes one feel bad about being on the planet. But Slat is pure engineer. He does not subscribe to the idea that humans should be forced to change their actions — because it won’t, he says frankly, make much difference.
“Compared to the effect I can have with The Ocean Cleanup, my personal actions, such as recycling or not eating meat, are really going to be quite insignificant. I’m not a true believer in environmentalism or that ‘every little bit helps’; that as long as we all do our little bit these problems will be solved.”
He continues: “If you look around you today it’s clear that hasn’t really worked. These little bits are often contrary to human nature. I’m much more in favour of changing the world to fit humanity, rather than changing humanity to fit the world. Most leakage of plastic today comes from countries in developing economies in South-east Asia and Central Africa, where people haven’t yet had the luxury to think about how they use plastic. I don’t think trying to education half-a-billion people to do the right thing will solve the problem.”
While Slat does drive an electric BMW (the automobile brand is a sponsor of The Ocean Cleanup) and he tries to keep his meat intake low, he says it’s wiser to invest time in developing technologies to solve the problem. For example, plastic that, when it ends up in the environment, dissolves harmlessly.
His logic explains a lot about his attitude. Does he, knowing the full scale of the problem, ever feel depressed or overwhelmed? Particularly working the 90-hour weeks that he says are his standard?
“Not really. It just becomes clearer the challenges we need to solve. Knowing the problem is half the solution. The progress we’ve made on the technology side makes me very confident we can do this.”