Dutchman Boyan Slat was 16 when, on a scuba diving trip to Greece, he found more plastic bags than fish in the sea. From the experience he drew inspiration to create a device that collects plastic waste from the ocean.
Now 27, Slat became CEO of The Ocean Cleanup initiative, which intends to remove 80% of the plastic in the sea by 2030, and about 90% by 2040. The promise is contained in a letter sent by the young man to the organization of the United Nations (UN) Ocean Conference, which takes place in Lisbon until this Friday.
With the creation of his NGO, the activist gained fame: in 2014 he received the title "Champion of the Planet" from the UN, which earned him appearances in several lists of promising young people, such as Forbes 30 Under 30 and Time magazine. On the website of the initiative he leads, there are details about the cleaning system, but also, T-shirts and reusable bottles with his brand name — Boyan has become almost a celebrity.
The main system he created works as a kind of mobile dam that is carried by two boats. This garbage collector fills up as the boats move forward at a certain speed, and as the plastic moves along on account of the sea currents (see picture below).
When it becomes full, this kind of net is closed, sealed, and taken to the boat, where it is unloaded. After the ships operating the system are full of plastic, the trash is taken to a recycling center on dry land.
To find the ideal cleaning locations, the NGO uses mathematical models that predict where in the ocean plastic is most likely to accumulate.
In addition to this collection system at sea, the NGO led by the Dutchman has also developed solar-powered equipment to remove trash from rivers before it reaches the ocean.
Called "interceptors", this equipment also works by creating barriers for the plastic waste. Currently, the NGO has ten of these systems up and running in rivers in different parts of the world, from Jamaica to Indonesia to countries like Malaysia and the Dominican Republic.
Boyan Slat was just 18 years old when he invented the first prototype of the ocean cleanup system in 2013. Soon after, in 2014, he received a UN award and began to gain recognition. It was at this time that he began to attract investors for his project, which currently include names such as the band Coldplay and the soft drink manufacturer, Coca-Cola.
Despite this, the first cleanup operations began only in 2018, when The Ocean Cleanup tested the System 001 equipment. Then, in 2019, an evolution of the same system carried out the first plastic extraction in the region known as the Great Pacific Garbage Island.
Since then, System 001 has evolved into System 002 — also known as Jenny — to perform some one-off cleanup operations over the years 2021 and 2022.
Now, the NGO's ambitious plan is to get 10 systems in operation in the Pacific Ocean region which concentrates the most plastic waste, and to double the equipment in operation in rivers each year.
"Now, in the next 12 months, we will focus on maturing our solutions. These are proven systems, they work, so it's all about getting more experience. We want to double the amount of interceptors on rivers every year, and also increase from one to ten systems in operation in the big Pacific garbage patch in two years," Slat explained.
His expansion plans include Brazil because, he said, the country has one of the most rivers with potential for plastic waste removal.
"There is certainly a lot of work to be done in Brazil, and we would love to work with local companies and governments to try to bring the interceptors to the rivers in Brazil as well," he said.
"It is a good investment for governments because it is much more expensive to clean up this trash on the coast, after it has already affected the beaches and tourism, than to simply collect it while it is still in the rivers," he added.
Slat's creation focuses on ways to remove trash that is already in the sea, but the inventor himself recognizes that it is also necessary to think of strategies to prevent plastic production from remaining at current levels. According to the UN, 89% of the plastic trash found in the sea comes from single-use items such as plastic bags and packaging.
According to the most recent data from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the amount of plastic in the ocean is estimated to be somewhere between 75 and 199 million tons. This litter affects more than 800 marine and coastal species, either by the risk of entanglement in the litter or by changes in their habitat.
Because of this, discussions at the UN Ocean Conference have been focused on reducing the use of plastic and, in the long term, on the complete replacement of this material, rather than on one-off cleanup initiatives like the one created by Slat.
One of the initiatives is the so-called Global Commitment to the New Plastics Economy, which was recognized by 22 new countries during the UN Ocean Conference. Among the new signatories of the agreement there are also local governments, such as those of the states of São Paulo, Alagoas, Bahia, Ceará, Maranhão, Paraíba, Pernambuco, Piauí, Rio Grande do Norte, and Sergipe, which together represent almost half of the Brazilian population.
Responsible for covering more than 70% of the planet's area, the ocean is essential for sustaining life on Earth, but its health is in danger — this alert is the main focus of the UN Ocean Conference, which took place in Portugal from June 27 to July 1.
The event brought together delegations from several countries to promote the development of concrete actions, both from countries and private institutions, so that the goals of Agenda 2030, also known as Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), are achieved. In the case of the ocean, this is SDG 14, Life at Sea, which includes commitments such as significantly reducing marine pollution by 2025.
Besides providing food and work, the ocean also has a fundamental role in the planet's climate regulation: it guarantees that the Earth's temperature stays at adequate levels for the survival of several species, including mankind.
But, because of human action, the seas have suffered several challenges, which include the increase in pollution, caused mainly by plastics, and also the rise in water acidity, caused by the high carbon emissions in the atmosphere.
This story was produced as part of the 2022 UN Ocean Conference Fellowship organized by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network with support from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch). The story was first published in in Portuguese in G1 on July 1, 2022. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Boyan Slat / Credit: g1.