İllustration: Ece Çiftçi

Can 25-year-old entrepreneur Boyan Slat rid the oceans of plastic?

Boyan Slat was born in 1994 in Delft, Netherlands. He is currently 25 years old and is seen as the world’s biggest hope on solving the issue of plastic pollution. The story began in 2011, when he went to the Greek island of Lefkas with his family for diving. He was shocked for two reasons: there were more plastic bags than fish in the sea and no viable solution had yet been found to reduce the number. The diving trip took a metaphorical turn as he delved into one of the biggest issues of our times.

By 2014, the global production of plastic reached 288 million tons, 10% of which ended up in water. The amount of plastics started to be roughly calculated as one third of the total biomass of fish (Venema, 2014).

The plastic in the Pacific Ocean, which is spread out over an area twice the size of Texas, is especially a huge concern. In addition to the volume, a second challenge is that the pile rotates. This would mean a hypothetical clean-up by a ship would take thousands of years. Another issue is the urgency of the matter. Plastics gradually break down into microplastics and enter the food chain. By fall 2018, 8% had already been turned into macroplastics, and the remaining 92% is the subject of a race against time (Perrigo, 2018). Slat came up with an alternative approach. He suggested to give up trying to chase plastic and let the plastics do the moving by harnessing the two most powerful forces of the ocean –currents and waves.

The plastic in the Pacific Ocean, which is spread out over an area twice the size of Texas, is especially a huge concern. In addition to the volume, a second challenge is that the pile rotates. This would mean a hypothetical clean-up by a ship would take thousands of years.

His entrepreneurial spirit –if there is anything as such– was there from the beginning. At a very young age, he started building tree houses and zip-wires. He was also very interested in rocketry and liked to experiment with explosives. In fact, he once invited 250 people for a rocket show of his own, a spectacle in which he set a Guinness World Record for launching the most water rockets at the same time. The number in question was 213.

In order to clean the oceans of plastic, he wanted to follow the same experiential approach. His idea was to anchor floating barriers to the sea bed, catching the floating debris and having the moved plastic extracted. The boom would capture the plastic and boats would periodically come to pick them up. Marine life would not be affected by this and the collected plastic would be recycled.

While studying aerospace engineering at Delft University, he set up his aptly-titled venture, The Ocean Cleanup. Months passed by as he searched for a sponsor. He had saved up 200 euros of pocket money and no one seemed to be willing to give him more.

In 2012, he had appeared in a TEDx Talk titled “How the Oceans Can Clean Themselves”. Months of global reluctance ended when that talk went viral on 26 March 2013 and the internet performed its magic. Boyan Slat started receiving 1,500 e-mails per day from people offering to become volunteers and the crowdfunding platform he set up afterwards made USD 80,000 in 15 days. That number reached 30 million by 2017 (Gmoser, 2017) and 40 million at the beginning of 2019 (Becker, 2019). He also received grants from Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel’s foundation and Salesforce.com CEO Mark Benioff (Rainey, 2018). The TEDx video currently has around 2.8 million views.

Boyan Slat has always received a certain amount of backlash for The Ocean Cleanup, but even the most passionate critics of the project admit the energy and enthusiasm brought to the issue of plastic pollution by his proposal.

The project was set to start at the beginning of 2018. The Dutch government had given the green light to The Ocean Cleanup for their operations in international waters and the course was set as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The 2000-feet floating barrier, called System 001, made its way out towards the Pacific Ocean on 8 September 2018. Yet there was a minor glitch.

After four weeks of testing, Slat claimed the device was indeed collecting plastic, but then losing it back. To make matters worse, the 60-feet-long end section of System 001 broke off on January 2019 (Martin & Morris, 2019). As of February 2019, System 001 returned to Hawaii for repair.

Boyan Slat has always received a certain amount of backlash for The Ocean Cleanup, but even the most passionate critics of the project admit the energy and enthusiasm brought to the issue of plastic pollution by his proposal. No matter how his story turns out in the end –and it would be for our greatest benefit if he succeeds– there is something quite remarkable about his courage, vision and the way he expresses himself in light of his dreams. He once said: “I don’t understand why ‘obsessive’ has a negative connotation, I’m obsessive and I like it” (Venema, 2014). We will have to wait and see if his obsession will find a way to make our world better.