The young man and the sea

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Activism in action: a 20-year old takes on the mass of floating plastic garbage.

Photo of Boyan Slat behind a large pile of plastic waste extracted from oceans

Boyan Slat has not only the face but also the benevolence of an angel. In three months the 20-year-old Dutchman raised $2 million through a highly effective Internet crowdfunding campaign on behalf of The Ocean Cleanup, which aims to rid the seas of floating plastic garbage.

It all began in the summer of his 16th birthday, when Slat took a diving holiday in Greece. He was shocked by the amount of garbage he encountered. “I started to work on this with a friend,” he recalls. “We were total novices, and everyone thought it was an impossible goal.”

Using Facebook and Skype to involve the world’s leading experts, Slat dropped his studies in aeronautical engineering at the University of Delft to devote himself to the project fulltime. “I’m not an engineer or an expert in the marine food chain. I defined the project based on the information I gathered. My current role is to organize the overall strategy.”

Plastic garbage accumulates in gyres, enormous vortices that exist in all of the world’s five oceans, formed by global currents. Slat’s idea is to install surface dams along the paths of these currents, trapping any plastic garbage larger than 2 millimetres, which is 90-95 per cent of the total. In March 2014, a field test conducted off the Azores confirmed the project’s feasibility.

François Galgani, an expert in ocean garbage at the French Institute of Ocean Research, believes the problem lies closer to home. “Is it justifiable to collect garbage more than 5,000 km offshore when it already saturates our coastlines and has a visible economic impact?” he asks.

With the money Slat has raised, he can launch the second phase of his project: the construction of a prototype. This should take a year, after which Slat hopes to build four to five more within four years at a total cost of $300 million.

Read about another young innovator who is turning old plastic bags into bricks


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