Little more than a year ago we stumbled across a viral TED talk, a young man shared his idea on how to clean the oceans from one of its biggest enemies – plastic pollution. At the age of 18 Boyan Slat presented during a 10-minute talk his radical ideas of a passive cleanup solution for the oceans. He explains how it all started during a vacation in Greece. His passion for diving combined with the overwhelming observation of the amount of plastic he saw in the water, led him to study the problem in a high school science project. His Marine Litter Extraction, school-assignment won him the Best Technical Design award 2012 at the TU Delft and the life changing invitation to the TEDxDelft were his talk: How the Oceans Can Clean Themselves, went viral.
The core of Boyan’s innovative idea is to use the force of the ocean currents to concentrate the floating plastic in one place instead of fishing after the plastic with ships. This method lets the ocean do the collecting work and by doing so energy is saved, cost are reduced and the theoretical cleanup time is reduced from millennia to mere years.
So what happened with this passionate young man and his ocean cleaning idea?
On June 3rd 2014, around one and a half year after his TEDxDelft appearance Boyan gave a second talk: How We Showed the Oceans Could Clean Themselves. In this talk he presents the Ocean Cleanup project and the results of a yearlong feasibility study together with a team of 100 scientists and engineers. Thanks to his popular TED Talk and the connecting nature of todays social media Boyan Slat managed to get enough attention around the world to successfully launch a crowd funding campaign making it possible to finance this one-year research, confirming that the Ocean Cleanup project not only can be done but should de done. What started as an idea turned out to be: “likely a technically feasible and financially viable’ method to clean up half the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 10 years’ time”.
But this young mans story doesn’t stop here, a new crowd funding campaign was launched the same day the 530-page feasibility study was presented, with the goal of collecting US$ 2 million within 100 days. Within 98 days, the US$ 2 million target had been reached and at the end of the campaign, a total of US$ 2,154,282 had been raised, enabling the organization to start the pilot phase, that includes the construction and testing of large-scale operational pilots. The crowd funding platform ABN AMRO’s SEEDS, who facilitated the campaign, states that this is “the most successful non-profit crowd funding campaign in history”.
Boyan Slat has also been recognized as one of the 20 Most Promising Young Entrepreneurs Worldwide (Intel EYE50), and has also been rewarded the United Nations Champions of the Earth award, the organization’s highest environmental accolade, making him the youngest person ever receiving this reward.
Boyan Slat and his Ocean Cleanup project seems to be set on a stable path towards success but even if the feasibility study answers a lots of questions and critics there are still some strong doubts among expert.
The Ocean Cleanup is not only questioned from a technical aspect but also whether it should be a priority or not:
“It seems a foolish strategy to focus on approaches to take litter out of the oceans, when we could prevent it from getting there in the first place,” says Prof Richard Thompson of Plymouth University.
“If I had a sum of money to invest in the problem then I would spend 95% of it on approaches to stop the plastic from entering the oceans. Of course we want to find ways to remove litter but we shouldn’t delude ourselves. It’s like trying to mop up the bathroom floor while leaving the bath overflowing and the taps turned on full.”
Boyan Slat doesn’t seem to be negatively affected by the critic and answers: “First of all, the ‘mop’ hasn’t been invented yet so it certainly can’t do any harm to try,” and adds “Of course it shouldn’t be an excuse to pollute, but I think it’s a motivating message that it’s not a hole that’s too deep to climb out of.”
As we speak the Ocean Cleanup project launched its next major project: the Mega Expedition, in which up to 50 vessels will collect more plastic measurements in three weeks than have been collected in the past 40 years combined. The Mega Expedition will take place in August 2015, in which the vessels will cover, a 3,500,000 km2 area between Hawaii and California in parallel, creating the first high- resolution map of plastic in the Pacific Ocean.
As many other water related issues the solutions does not seem to be in only one answer. We at Mora Water Systems believe that the best solutions are found is the overlapping combination of different methods that together will be able to tackle these global problems. It takes just one passionate and convinced individual to start a movement, one that eventually can lead to real radical change. We admire the work Boyan Slat and his team is doing and we sincerely hope that this initiative combined with other different approaches will be able to save our oceans from choking in plastic.