“It can’t be done.”

Boyan Slat heard this over and over when he first proposed a way to clean up millions of tons of plastic polluting our oceans. Almost anyone else would have trudged away in frustration and despair.  But 20-year-old Slat hasn't been deterred. “Human history is basically a list of things that couldn’t be done, and then were done,” he says.

Today, Slat and his team at The Ocean Cleanup are well on their way to proving the critics wrong. Good news for the planet.

Drowning in plastic

Slat, who grew up in the city of Delft in the Netherlands, was on a diving trip in Greece three years ago when he was literally overwhelmed by plastic. “There were more plastic bags than fish,” he says.  “That was the moment I realized it was a huge issue and that environmental issues are really the biggest problems my generation will face.”

Boyan Slat

That fall, Slat, then 17, decided to study plastic pollution as part of a high school project. What he discovered astonished him. First of all, the problem was far bigger and more calamitous than he’d imagined. The huge floating debris fields (a portion of the 300 million tons of plastic produced each year) were concentrated mainly in five rotating ocean gyres scattered around the world. These discards from consumption-addicted societies kill millions of seabirds and marine mammals each year and pollute beaches, harm human health, and cause staggering economic damage.

What’s more, Slat learned that no one had yet devised a feasible way to clean up these massive garbage patches. Most proposed solutions involved “fishing” up the plastic using ships outfitted with nets — which, as Slat discovered, would likely take too long, cost too much, spew out too many greenhouse gases, and scoop up too much sea life along with the trash.

Slat proposed an alternative that mostly avoided these obstacles — a solar-powered system with an array of specially angled floating barriers that essentially waited for surface plastic to come to it. Sea creatures could escape underneath in ocean currents, and a collection platform would extract the plastic for recycling into oil and other products. Best of all, Slat predicted his system could clean up a single gyre, such as the infamous North Pacific Garbage Patch, within five to 10 years.

An idea that wouldn’t die

The following fall, Slat entered the aerospace engineering program at the Delft University of Technology and officially unveiled his ocean cleanup concept at TEDxDelft. There was buzz, but nothing much moved forward. Slat found himself continually drifting off in classes, envisioning ways to refine and improve his concept. The urge to give it a go kept gnawing at him.

Boyan Slat

“It was a bit like a pair of boxer shorts with an asymmetrically positioned label in them,” he says. “It wouldn’t let go. I finally decided to put both university and my social life on hold to focus all my time on developing this idea. I wasn’t sure if it would succeed, but considering the scale of the problem I thought it was important to at least try.”

With his family’s blessing, Slat began in earnest assembling a team of volunteers and employees for The Ocean Cleanup, which now numbers about 100.

But is it feasible?

In answer to the naysayers, Slat and his team raised $100,000 from a crowdfunding campaign and began testing a 40-meter collecting barrier near the Azores Islands last March. In June, they released a 500+ page feasibility study (complete with cover concocted from recovered ocean plastic). Bottom line: purging the planet of garbage patches is definitely feasible.

Over the next three to four years, Slat will push toward a fully operational large-scale pilot by testing a series of longer and longer barriers. He’s currently seeking to crowdfund $2 million to finance it. Incidentally, The Ocean Cleanup is also working on a plan to stop plastic from washing into the oceans in the first place. “It’s just the other side of the equation that in my opinion is equally important,” Slat says. “It’s something everyone is able to help with, and we also have some technologies in the pipeline.”

As for school, Slat doesn’t miss it — except maybe for the social-life part, which he hopes to revive a bit once his team takes on more of the workload. “Recently I spoke to some of my best mates who I haven’t seen for about five months,” he says. “I don’t have time for stuff like that right now, but I really can’t complain. I can’t imagine doing something more fun than being able to have an idea and then actually making it into a reality.”

Hear more about Slat’s concept and feasibility study results in the video below:

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