Boyan Slat's story is not quite that of a 20-year-old Wunderkind who magically found a potential fix to a longstanding problem. It's perhaps more accurately described as a combination of personal dedication and trial and error. When going through his old prototypes for a technology that would passively scrub oceans of plastic, he's almost embarrassed of his early concepts.
"But that's what science is really," Slat told me. "It's a work in progress."
The crowdfunding campaign behind Slat's Ocean Cleanup Project was announced with strong bidding, no matter: "With two million dollars we can make a theoretical concept come true." With just two days left in his campaign, Slat successfully collected the funding for his project, bringing him one step closer to realizing a vision of plastic-free oceans.
Boyan Slat at a plastic heap. Photo: Manuel Freudt / VICE Media
Plastic is the enduring residue of consumer society. A plastic shopping bag corrodes in approximately 20 years; a plastic bottle decays in something like 450 years. Cheap and universally applicable, 225 million tons of it are produced every year, made from a resource that is not quite as interminable as it used to be: oil.
Plastic clouds our oceans as floating particulate, sometimes forming entire islands. It is estimated that there are 150 million tons of plastic in the oceans, with 100,000 tons in the North Pacific garbage patch alone. This means that plastic is responsible for about 70 percent of all oceanic pollution. If those numbers fail to illustrate the sheer scope of the problem, just look at these people posing in the middle of their weekly production of household rubbish.
It was while diving through Greece that Slat, then 17, grasped the gravity of the problem. Ever since, the Dutch teenager, who just turned 20, has put his energy into developing a technique of harnessing the power of gyres to round up plastic.
Today, he leads a team of 100 scientists, students, and supporters. And with his latest crowdfunding success, Slat's workload shows no sign of slowing down. He explained that he next plans to build upscaled prototypes of his floating, 100-kilometer long collectors, before anchoring the systems in polluted waters within the next three to five years.
— Boyan Slat (@BoyanSlat) July 15, 2014
"We don't do free days, that's really part of the ocean clean up," said Slat, who juggled a steady stream of phone calls and emails during a recent visit to his Delft workshop. Occasionally, he'd study readouts from an app that tracks donations to his project; at the time, he was nearing $2 million in crowdfunding.
"Germany is actually at the moment our second largest giver," he said in a more relaxed moment. "Without the internet, this project wouldn't have been here."
What we want to do has never been done. It is probable that we will encounter several uncertainties.
Of course, the Ocean Cleanup Project is not the first concept of collecting trash from the oceans. There is the Munich-based One Earth — One Ocean project, aimed at actively collecting rubbish with its custom build ship, Seekuh. There are network-based projects like The Clean Oceans Project, which seek to educate on a global level. And of course there is the lovely Mr. Trash Wheel: A cartoon-style mill wheel rambling its way through Baltimore harbor.
What makes Slat's project unique is that it's premised on the idea of letting ocean currents do the heavy lifting, effectively funneling plastic into the middle of a V-shaped structure, where the trash will be collected and regularly shipped to land in larger batches. The anchored 100-kilometer barrier, Slat added, would be the largest structure ever built on the oceans.
The costs will be tremendous, but Slat still claims that the actual project would run a calculated 33 times cheaper than conventional, active collecting projects.
Not everyone is completely sold on his idea. Stiv Wilson from the 5Gyres project famously called it a fail and nothing more than an illusion. In response, Slat released a long feasibility study, in which he demonstrates, among other things, how sea life will not be affected, floating underneath the barrier.
In a recent article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, German scientists warned that the Ocean Cleanup Project would cause more harm than good. They claimed that the power of the currents has not been estimated correctly, and that Slat's plan could be affected by microbiological growth on the barrier.
If anything, Slat is thankful that the scientific community has criticized his idea; he plans to continue working on future feasibility studies and prototypes.
"What we want to do, has never been done," he admitted. "It is probable that we will encounter several uncertainties."
In the end, fishing plastic out of the high seas is only one part of the solution. The end goal is to shut off, once and for all, the flow of trash from our consumer society into the oceans. That's not to mention the Herculean task that would be recycling and repurposing all that plastic after it's back on land.
Whether Slat's Ocean Cleanup Project sinks or swims is anyone's guess. Just don't say he wouldn't go down with the ship.