When we think of innovation, we often think of the next app or gadget that we’ll use in our everyday lives. But innovation can happen in any vertical, and it doesn’t have to be digital to be successful. This is incredibly refreshing when we turn our eyes to the environment, specifically the ocean, where innovative efforts are attempting to solve one of the greatest issues of our time.
If Boyan Slat isn’t a household name, it should be. At 16, he decided to take action on what he found appalling: the abundance of trash in the ocean. At least five known trash islands have been growing for decades, and the reason they only get bigger is because they’re composed of plastic debris from pollution — beach litter and the general lack of oversight on the part of the public. And plastic, created in the 1950s, theoretically takes 10–1000 years to decompose. The largest of five known trash islands, the Great Pacific Garbage Pack (GPGP), has been growing since the 1970s and is 1.6 million square kilometers across–twice the size of Texas.
With regard to clean up, what efforts have been attempted to date? None.
If you find that as shocking as I do, you have to step back and see the barriers: in international waters, there is simply no regulation, not when it comes to environmental degradation and clean up. Outside of each country’s national boundaries, oceans are simply a no-mans-land — a true testament to the Tragedy of the Commons. From a mind-set perspective, people are often scared by problems that feel too big to tackle, but anyone can do anything if they have the passion to break it down and figure it out.
Coming in with fresh eyes, Boyan Slat decided to gather the experts and the funding (a whopping $21.7 million USD, largely from Silicon Valley Philanthropists, Marc and Lynne Benioff as well as Peter Thiel) to tackle the GPGP, with the goal of halving it within five years. That said, Slat came up with the prototype himself.
What’s interesting about this extraordinary effort is how simple it is. The prototype, named System 001, uses a horseshoe-shaped floater lined with a 3-meter skirt to capture the plastic debris while still allowing marine life to pass through. There’s no need to power it, as it depends on the winds and ocean currents to work.
But System 001 doesn’t stop there, of course. Not only is it equipped with all the bells and whistles (solar power, lights, anti-collision systems, cameras, sensors and satellite antennas allowing it to actively communicate and relay its position at all times while also collecting performance data), but also the plastic collected will be brought to land and recycled into durable plastics.
So will it work? System 001 was first tested in May, and is going through another test now, from September 10 to the 23rd off the California coast. While there are some detractors — concerns that marine life could perish in the skirt — Slat’s nonprofit, The Ocean Cleanup, contracted with a third party to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), which shows how unlikely this is. That said, a boat will be nearby at all times, and if sensors show that a sea turtle or other marine mammal is trapped in the debris, they will gauge the situation, and if at all possible, free it.
Considering everything he’s accomplished to date, it’s no surprise that Boyan Slat is the youngest person to have received United Nation’s highest environmental accolade “Champion of the Earth” in 2015. And the fact that he’s started his journey at such a young age begs the question of what else he will think up throughout his career.
At the very least, Boyan Slat is likely to stay in the environmental sector, having said: “It’s really important that, earth’s engineers and inventors, we always develop technologies which the positive effects are larger than the negative side effects by stacking those inventions on top of each other, eventually you will get to a world that will be many times better than it is today.” That’s a future we can all fight for.
Instead of thinking, “Oh no, I didn’t invent anything world-changing at 16,” see this as an opportunity to break through barriers and bring something to life that you are passionate about. The world needs us.