Boyan Slat and The Great Ocean Clean Up
The Great Ocean Clean Up.
— We explore the incredible work of Boyan Slat, Founder of The Ocean Clean Up.
✎ Kat Guerrero
“I went talking about environmental issues in general. I think the common response is, well, that’s a long way off. That’s for our children to worry about. So, hello, here I am.”
Boyan Slat, Tedx
I’ve been spending a lot of time surfing in Indonesia lately. While there were a handful of pristine beaches that met my vision of an elusive tropical island paradise, what I mostly found was…trash. Plastic bags, coke bottles, needles, tires, and straws. The works. Due to the oceans currents, a hefty wet season, prevailing winds and a lack of education, countries like Indonesia represent just how bad the problem of plastic pollution has become. There’s something unsettling and heartbreaking about paddling in the ocean only to have plastic bags stick to your arms.
Boyan Slat, the founder of The Ocean Clean Up, knows that feeling well. As an avid diver, Slat’s life-altering moment occurred while spending time underwater. While diving during in Greece, he saw far more plastic bags than fish – that unsettled him and inspired him to design a solution as part of a school project.
Plastic pollution, particularly in a marine environment, can be a difficult concept to wrap your head around if you don’t spend your time near the sea. But even city dwellers influence the sheer amount of plastic that enters the ocean (12 million tonnes a year!). Plastic can enter the ocean in a myriad of ways: through plastic litter, the tourism industry, microplastics, industrial leakage, and pollution out at sea (through lost fishing gear, industrial waste, illegal dumping). Approximately 80% of litter in the ocean comes from land. Most plastic that ends up in the ocean is petroleum based, but even ‘environmentally-friendly’ plastics like biodegradables aren’t innocent because they are meant to biodegrade in soil, not the ocean.
This sheer amount of plastic pollution in the ocean is a detrimental eye sore to the ecosystem. Seabirds, fish and other marine mammals ingest plastic on a regular basis – species like Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle has been listed as endangered because of plastic pollution decimating their population. When humans eat fish, they are susceptible to hazardous waste and health problems due to the chemicals used in plastic. Water is polluted by toxic substances, which shift natural oxygen levels in water and change the ecosystem completely. The quick synopsis? Plastic in the ocean is terrible for the ecosystem, animals, and our health.
Back to Slat. After the completion of his school project, Slat couldn’t stop thinking about plastic. He was perplexed that there hadn’t been a solution found and implemented to reduce the amount of plastics in our seas. So, at 16, Slat started developing a project that would have the potential to clean 50% of our oceans every 5 years. This was in 2012. Over the years, his plan evolved to target large garbage patches created from revolving ocean currents. The world loved (and continues to love) his idea. Slat’s project was named ‘One of the Best Inventions’ in 2015 by Time Magazine, raised over 2 million USD in crowdfunding and attracted 38,000 donors from over 160 countries.
Fast-forward to now, 2018. On September 8, Slat and his team bid adieu to System 001, and watched it move out of the San Francisco Bay and towards the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
After hundreds of tests, research expeditions to garbage patches, multiple prototypes and endless research, the System 001, a 600-meter long, u-shaped barrier designed to catch plastic on the surface and up to 3 meters underwater, is on a mission to efficiently collect as much plastic as possible. Once the plastic is collected, it will be transferred by a solar-powered conveyor belt to a storage area.
It only makes sense to test out Slat’s design on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the most plastic dense area in the world. Due to the oceans currents and gyres, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch contains almost 2 trillion pieces of plastic.
Slat’s approach to collecting plastic is nothing short of genius. His design is adaptable to the oceans currents, waves, weather, and wind, resulting in a versatile and durable system. Every few months, a boat will meet System 001 and gather all collected plastic. Once that boat reaches the shore, The Ocean Cleanup will ensure its sorted and processed responsibly and create a profit that recirculates into their work.
System 001’s main objective is to make sure that the system, well, works. It’s also to track progress, collect performance data and provide interested parties with consistent updates on its work. You can stay up to date with System 001’s position at The Ocean Cleanup.
We’ve been supporters of Slat’s work for a while now – it’s inspiring to see a young activist take action and introduce out-of-the-box ideas that get people excited and interested in issues that affect the entire planet. There’s often a misconception that if someone is young, they don’t have the experience or knowledge to be a leader. Slate is a perfect case study to prove that that sentiment is bullshit.
The next step will be to tackle to the problem at the source and cut down on single-use plastic being produced, consumed and disposed of. Ideally, corporations will take the first step and encourage their peers to approach plastic use from an environmentally-responsible and circular viewpoint.
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