In this age of social media and selfies, of the widespread portrayal of disengaged youths glued to smart phones in search of diversion rather than information, many have chosen to write off the next generation of activists. At the age of just 19, Boyan Slat is disproving such attitudes with a vengeance as he charts new territory in the quest for a solution to the ever-growing global problem of plastic debris in our oceans.
The scale of plastic contamination in the marine environment is vast. From bottles to bags to the microplastics that sluice into the seas from cosmetics and other products, plastic waste bobs on all of the world’s oceans and collects in vast swirling gyres that serve as an unwelcome monument to humanity’s wasteful practices. There has been no practical remedy to this escalating threat, which threatens sea creatures, damages coral reefs and brings chemical contamination. Conservative estimates place the financial damage at $13 billion per year.
It is to this problem that Slat turned his keen mind from an early age. While sixteen and still in secondary school, Slat went diving in Greece and found he often couldn’t see the fish for the plastic bags drifting through the waters. While his peers focused on the more immediate problems of navigating the turbulent waters of the teenage years, Slat spent six months studying plastic pollution and envisioned using natural ocean currents and winds to transport plastic towards a collection platform. Instead of using nets and vessels to remove the plastic, which can entangle sea life and worsen the problem it seeks to solve, he hit on the idea of solid floating barriers to collect the waste.
With the determination and lack of fear that marks out visionaries, Slat quit his Aerospace Engineering studies and led a team of 100 people to prove the feasibility of The Ocean Cleanup Array. The design was awarded Best Technical Design at the Delft University of Technology, and came second at the iSea Sustainable Innovation Award by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment. Slat has also been recognized as one of the 20 Most Promising Young Entrepreneurs Worldwide by Intel EYE50, and his presentation at TEDxDelft 2012 has been viewed by over 1.5 million people.
A crowd funding campaign has raised $2.2 million, which will allow his organization to start the pilot phase of the project. His vision and efforts have rallied politicians, scientists, the media and other activists around the cause of tackling plastic wastes, and will inspire others to take the necessary steps to both begin a clean-up and ensure waste does not end up in the ocean in the first place.