It’s been a long journey for young Dutch inventor Boyan Slat and his ambitious Ocean Cleanup project. In the space of seven years, he’s gone from TED talk wunderkind to 80-strong environmental organisation; from setbacks, smirks and opposition to finally, this month, success.
Ocean Cleanup’s autonomous floating barrier has started collecting plastic waste on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In the middle of the 270,000 square miles of plastic waste that lie between Hawaii and California, Slat’s 600-metre-long floating device is moving with the currents and gobbling up everything from fishing nets to microplastics.
“After beginning this journey seven years ago, this first year of testing in the unforgivable environment of the high seas strongly indicates that our vision is attainable and that the beginning of our mission to rid the ocean of plastic garbage, which has accumulated for decades, is within our sights,” Slat said, as quoted by New Atlas.
“Our team has remained steadfast in its determination to solve immense technical challenges to arrive at this point. Though we still have much more work to do, I am eternally grateful for the team’s commitment and dedication to the mission and look forward to continuing to the next phase of development.”
The project had a false start in October 2018, when the U-shaped barrier broke apart and had to be pulled in for repairs. The method was fixed and sent out again this June, this time with a parachute attached—which the organisation says is working and capturing plastic debris.
Boyan Slat and the TED talk
Slat’s vision has been bubbling away since October 2012, when he took to the stage at a TEDx conference with a vision for a huge barrier that could autonomously harvest floating plastic waste for processing on-shore.
The talk went viral, receiving just under three million views, and the non-profit Ocean Cleanup was born, attracting $2.2 million in crowdfunding. His now-80-strong team consists of engineers, scientists, researchers and computational modellers working to rid the world’s ocean of plastic.
“For society to progress, we should not only move forward but also clean up after ourselves,” Slat says on the Ocean Cleanup website.
The inventor aims to clean up half of the patch in five years’ time and 90 percent by 2040.
“Compared to the cost of leaving the plastic out there, the cost of the Ocean Cleanup is really insignificant,” Boyan Slat told the magazine Digital Trends. “According to the United Nations, the plastic currently in the ocean costs around $13 billion per year in terms of the damage to vessels, fisheries, and tourism. With the cleanup we’re talking about tens of millions of dollars per year. It’s no comparison. The cleanup is cheaper.”
Ocean Cleanup is now working on designing, building and testing System 002, a full-scale cleanup system to collect more plastic waste and keep it in the concentrated collection area for longer.