Guy Kelly meets Boyan Slat, the 23-year-old inventor determined to rid the world’s oceans of their plastic scourge
Imagine, as you take a dip this summer, that you could pour all the world’s oceans through a very fine sieve. What would you find? Well, first, you would probably notice that the old saying is correct: there are still plenty of fish in the sea. Numbers may be dwindling, but more than 22,000 fish species swim around in the earth’s waters, and they’re joined by nearly double that amount of crustaceans – lobsters, barnacles, krill, that sort of thing. You could tot up about two million whales, as well as 18 types of seal and 17 types of penguin. You would find that the sea-turtle family has seven distinct members, while manatees have just three. You would count a lot of things, in short, but there is one outstanding component that doesn’t belong there. Littered throughout the ocean, found in all shapes and all sizes, would be 5.25 trillion pieces of discarded plastic. And that is a problem.
It’s all our fault, of course. According to conservative estimates, humans dump eight million tons of waste plastic into the earth’s water system every year – the equivalent of five full shopping bags per foot of the world’s coastline. Once it’s in there, some will end up back on our shores, turning pristine beaches into hazardous tips after just one high tide. Some of it sinks straight to the seabed, but the majority stays afloat, hostage to the currents, and gets slowly dragged into one of five major ocean gyres (vast, swirling vortexes of water and wind found in the north and south of the Pacific and Atlantic, and one in the Indian Ocean) around the world. Large items – a jerry can, say, or a fishing net – can remain intact for decades, bobbing around, occasionally trapping animals, before eventually suffering the same fate as all plastic: succumbing to the conditions and crumbling into tiny pieces. These microplastics are chemical pollutants, but they’re also bite-sized. Fish, seabirds and other marine life mistake them for food, swallow them, and repeat that until it kills them.
It’s thought that of the 1.5 million Layson albatrosses on Midway Atoll in the Pacific, almost all have plastic in their digestive systems, killing a third of their chicks. Far away in Melbourne Beach, Florida, in 2011 scientists picked up a green turtle with gastrointestinal complaints. When coerced, the turtle defecated 74 foreign objects – including balls of tar, four types of latex balloons, various different types of plastic and a bit of carpet.
There has never been an obvious solution to all this. For the 70 years or so that plastic has been a fixture in consumer society, oceanographers and environmentalists around the world have been well aware of the process, but against an escalating issue of such unfathomable scope, any efforts to tackle it have proven utterly futile. Beach clean-ups are laudable but they don’t achieve much, while sending boats on seafaring litter picks would take millennia to pick up the rubbish, even if the flow of new plastic were halted today. Without a realistic option, then, many in the scientific community are resigned to the position that ridding the ocean of rubbish is at best impossible, at worst a naïve waste of time, energy and money.
Boyan Slat, a 23-year-old inventor from the Netherlands, did not listen to that message. For the past few years, Slat and his company, The Ocean Cleanup, have been developing a system that has the potential to prove those naysayers wrong. If all goes to plan, in fact, he should be able to collect more than half the plastic stuck in the largest of the ocean vortexes – the North Pacific Gyre, home to the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’, an area of floating rubbish between Japan and the west coast of America that some say is twice the size of France – after just five years in operation.
Meeting him, you see no reason to doubt that, either. ‘I am quite obsessive by nature,’ Slat says, at The Ocean Cleanup’s headquarters, two floors of a dull tower block in his home city of Delft, near The Hague. ‘Whenever you start working on something, you have to go about it with the underlying assumption that this puzzle has a solution, right? If you started a jigsaw puzzle not knowing whether all the pieces were in the box, it would not be a fun exercise. So I went into this thinking that we created this problem, so why can’t we solve it as well?’
Slat was 16 and still at school when he first encountered what he calls ‘the problem’. It is a story he rattles through quickly these days, given he has to tell it regularly: on a family holiday to the Greek island of Lesbos in 2010, he took a diving class and was so shocked by the level of plastic pollution in the water – ‘There were more bags than fish down there’ – that he vowed to think of a way to clear it all up. And that’s precisely what he did.
When he returned home, he read enough books and did enough Googling to feel in relative command of the issue. Then he worked out a cleanup idea with a friend for a high-school science competition, which involved putting a long barrier in the sea to catch big bits of passing plastic. They won that competition. ‘9.5 out of 10, I think it was,’ he remembers. ‘Not bad, not bad.’ Two years later, Slat started a university degree in aerospace engineering at Delft, while continuing his plastic research obsessively. Soon after starting the course, he received an invitation to present his solutions at a TEDX ideas conference in the city. Only a small audience of like-minded folk – Delft is known for its scientific research, as well as pottery – were present in the room for Slat’s presentation, but the video went viral within a week. It was at a time when innovative, planet-saving ideas, no matter how implausible, seemed to spread like wildfire on Facebook. All they required was a preposterously young and dreamy brainbox behind them. And of that group (we were all meant to be driving on solar roadways and texting on modular mobile phones by now, you might recall), only Slat seems to still be on track.
‘Oh yeah, the timing was right,’ he says. ‘There was also this kid who invented a way to detect cancer quickly, wasn’t there? Suddenly there were all these teenage miracle inventors, but it’s kind of a boring narrative now.’
Slat’s TEDX video has since been viewed more than 2.6 million times on Youtube. It was an unexpected popularity, but not entirely welcome.
‘It just went, “boooft”,’ he says, making a lazy explosion gesture. ‘I didn’t want the video to go viral at all. I thought the idea was so juvenile and not worked out yet, and that if I was going to get a lot of press then people would just poke holes in it and call it bullshit, saying the science and engineering wasn’t solid. I got 1,500 email requests per day, but I politely declined them all, which I think was the right decision.’
It was indeed. By avoiding too many media appearances and asking the advice of as many experienced inventors and business people as he could find, the hype stayed relatively contained. Still, he quit university after six months, set up The Ocean Cleanup as a company, and worked unpaid with some other volunteers for a while, until outside investment came in. Four years on, Slat remains CEO and founder, employing a growing team of 65 paid staff, from researchers to
Of the 1.5 million albatrosses in the Pacific, almost all have plastic in their digestive systems
engineers, almost all of whom are older than him. Donations – the product of crowdfunding, appealing to relevant businesses and generous sponsorship – recently passed £31.5 million.
Slat looks about the same now as the 19-year-old in the TEDX video. He’s a bit more tired-looking, maybe, and quite a lot less nervous, but he is still small and slight, and wears skate shoes, jeans and a baggy button-up shirt for almost any occasion. His eyes are a startling – not to mention on-brand – aquamarine blue, and he has the hairstyle of a solo period George Harrison: dark, shaggy, not a priority. It is a look that reflects his love of British indie rock, but it’s also excellent for an inventor in 2017. Part hipster Bond villain, part overachieving nephew. The people love it.
‘If I had the choice I would be engineering 100 per cent of the time, but I know people want to meet me and not some fundraiser, so I have to be the face of the solution, and the response has been amazing. I don’t see it as pressure, though. This had to be done and I decided to do it.’
It’s thought that nearly every piece of plastic ever created is still in existence somewhere, in some form. A global study released last month revealed that 91 per cent is never recycled, and 79 per cent goes into landfills or the natural environment. Single-use plastic, like water bottles, takes 450 years to break down. The same is true of a lot of the waste spewed out from factories in countries like China, of fishing detritus, and of the tiny microbeads found in cosmetic products, which Environment Secretary Michael Gove has only just appeared to notice. Given we produced more plastic in the last decade than in the last century, that’s a lot to accumulate: a lot of Barbie dolls, a lot of prosthetic hips, a lot of Jaffa Cakes wrappers, a lot of Henry vacuum cleaners. At this rate, in fact, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea within 33 years.
Slat is not anti-plastic, because it’s quite difficult to take that stance and continue as a functioning human. Sitting on a white faux-leather sofa (plastic), drumming on a coffee table made of waste plastic, pointing at designs on a laptop (plastic) and occasionally fiddling with his phone (plastic), he admits it has changed the world for the better, as well as for the worse.
As a priority, Slat’s solution has always focused on the big bits, for the simple reason that they will become dangerous microplastics, and they’re easier to collect. In fact, The Ocean Cleanup’s donors – who have included ordinary crowdfunders, high-profile business leaders such as Peter Thiel, and the Dutch government – are putting their money into a project not hugely dissimilar to his original high-school design, which he has kept as simple as possible, because ‘the number of problems only gets bigger as you make something more complicated’.
As early as next year, The Ocean Cleanup will float 62-mile-long solid curved barriers (made from thermoplastic and high-density polyethylene, both of which are environmentally friendly) in the sea at strategic points, beginning with the worst of them all, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Incidentally, that isn’t a patch at all. In reality it’s more of a fog: loose, heterogeneous and constantly moving, which is another reason why it’s nigh on impossible to pursue the rubbish with boats and nets.
From a bird’s-eye view, the barriers will look like giant fallen eyelashes; and from a fish’s-eye view there will be a gap, under a short screen, where sea life can pass through unimpeded. That leaves all large plastic near the surface caught – though anything down to 1cm in size is the intended target – and corralled into a reservoir in the middle. A boat will then come to pick up the collected plastic every three months or so, before taking it back to land, where the idea is to recycle it and sell it to fund the project’s continuation. Eventually, barriers will be deployed in all the gyres, and potentially adapted for river mouths or wherever they’re needed.
It’s a simple concept, and one that hinges on the notion we’re better off using the natural currents to send us the plastic. It has evolved gradually, too. For instance, where once there was a plan to somehow anchor the barriers to the seabed (about as cheap and easy as it sounds), the moorings were entirely redrawn this year.
‘Over half the cost of the project would be anchoring it, and an intern proposed we might not need to fix it to the seabed. The current gets a lot slower as you get deeper in the sea, and we found that if you cut the barriers loose and use floating anchors, they start to act like the plastic, moving to the area where the most waste is, so you can collect 10 times more than if it were fixed,’ Slat says, excitedly.
Collaboration is salient: Slat knows he is a professional ideas man but lacks experience in almost all areas. To counter that, he has surrounded himself with the right people and listens to them assiduously. Both his chief operations officer and chief financial officer are double his age, while the office contains experts from all relevant fields, including the oil and gas sectors (after all, the project is not unlike installing an offshore rig).
Slat is an only child, and was born in 1994 to an artist father and a mother who works in tourism. His parents divorced when he was a baby, and his father moved back to Croatia, where he is from, while Boyan grew up with his mother in Delft. He has been too busy to see his father for the past three years, but continues to live at home, with no plans to move out. He last took a day off ‘oh, maybe two months ago?’ but runs six miles every Sunday morning, reads a lot (particularly biographies of his heroes, turnof-the-century inventors such as Nikola Tesla, the Wright brothers and Thomas Edison) and enjoys travelling the world. He also has a girlfriend.
‘That’s a fairly new development actually,’ he says, in a tone indistinguishable from that which he uses for discussing the technicalities of tidal flows. He checks his phone. ‘Four months, to the day. She’s a student living in New York, so that’s a complication we’re working on.’ Inventing appears to have been instinctive. He remembers when he was two wanting a chair to sit on, so rather than the obvious response – look for a chair or ask for a chair – he made the conscious decision to build one, using wood, a hammer and some nails. ‘I thought, why would you buy a chair when you could sit in a selfmade one?’
Nearly all plastic ever created is still in existence in some form, and 79 per cent goes into the environment
‘The motivation for me is the challenge, and the major challenge of this time just happens to be pollution’
After household DIY, the natural progression was to build zip wires and treehouses for his friends, before graduating to model rocketry as an 11-yearold. He would build rockets from water bottles, then pressurise them and shoot them into the sky. Bored of that, he decided it would be fun to fire 213 of them into the sky at the same time, getting a Guinness World Record in the process. He has no idea if the record stands, and doesn’t really care.
‘Before that, I was quite a solitary child, but to get the record I had 213 people organised in a field. There were news channels there, and sponsors. It was definitely the first time I convinced other people to be part of my crazy ideas.’ After that, he felt like he needed ‘a real thing to work on’. Fortunately, that fateful Lesbos holiday wasn’t far away.
Slat balks slightly at the idea of being called an environmentalist, or some sort of green warrior. Everybody involved with The Ocean Cleanup has different reasons for supporting the project, he says, but most fall into two distinct categories.
‘Some love the “moonshot” technology of it all, and some love it because they hate the environment going to shit… For me, the intrinsic motivation was the first one,’ he says. ‘It’s not that I didn’t care about the problem, but I think the reason I cared was that it was such a big, weighty thing that nobody else was seriously working on. The motivation for me is the challenge, and the major challenges of this time just happen to be related to resources and pollution.’
It is precisely this attitude that a lot of people aren’t keen on. If you type ‘Boyan Slat criticism’ into Google, almost 40,000 results are offered. Aside from the odd academic takedown, the majority of these are the online science-writing equivalent of middle-aged men standing around a propped bonnet: everybody is suddenly a trained mechanic, with their own deeply informed diagnosis.
Some have very specific doubts about how the Ocean Cleanup model will work, particularly since it relies on there being a demand for the recycled waste once it’s back on dry land, but many simply claim Slat has his priorities skewed. They believe all he cares about is proving he can do what he said he would, rather than stopping and asking if removing plastic is the wisest use of his money and talent at the moment.
‘I would not acknowledge that the told-you-so moment is one of my motivations,’ he says, flatly, before dismantling the different criticisms he receives with a gentle anger. He is practised at this, regularly taking to Twitter to respond to negative articles. ‘People say it can’t be done, that the ocean is too rough, the plastic goes too deep, the plastic is too big, the plastic is too small, that we harm sea life – all these things. But that’s why we have been testing for years. We can’t afford to risk anything – the garbage patch takes 15 days to get to; it’s further than the International Space Station.’
What really riles him are those that say he ought to focus his attentions on preventing more plastic reaching the sea.
‘The problem only gets worse over time. If you don’t clean up the big pieces of plastic in the ocean now, which is 97 per cent of all of the plastic, then it will turn into microplastics. That’s the ticking time bomb. I agree that the majority of money should be for prevention, but human nature is notoriously slow to change, and someone has to do this.’
He isn’t finished. ‘Look at climate change. That’s a bigger problem than plastic, but we can’t all focus on that and forget about plastic – that isn’t how the world works. We can divide our attention across different things, using clean-up to strengthen prevention. It’s the broken-window effect: people litter where there’s already litter. We have to start somewhere.’
A part of the backlash, he believes, is jealousy. With his recent fundraising successes, some have accused him of hogging all the cash that could go to other plastic campaigns. The issue is getting more and more attention, in part thanks to A Plastic Ocean, a Netflix documentary released last year, and various campaigns are jostling for space. Some are very specific. Strawless Ocean has taken on the daunting task of tackling the staggering fact that Americans use and throw away 500 million drinking straws every day, most of which end up in the sea. Others are smaller in scope but quietly effective – the excellently named Surfers Against Sewage ( SAS) focuses on beach cleaning and educational days in the UK; and The 5 Gyres Institute aims to raise awareness of the global problem, receiving special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council in the process. There are proposals for more rubbish-removing water wheels on rivers, or aggressively researching alternative compounds that manufacturers could switch to.
For whatever reason, though, no campaign commands quite so much hype as The Ocean Cleanup. ‘The narrative becomes one teenager against all these scientists. Even in this world, it’s kind of a shame,’ Slat says. ‘I’m not a teenager any more, for a start, and it’s not my fault if they don’t have any money. It’s not a competition.’ It is a bit, though, isn’t it? He sighs. ‘Sometimes it feels like it. I don’t know why, though, and it’s a shame. We’re all working towards the same thing.’
The Ocean Cleanup had originally hoped to get something in the water by 2020, but after hitting investment targets early, Slat announced at a conference in May that the project will officially begin within the next 12 months, with a full-scale model heading to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch some time in 2018. Slat gets badly seasick whenever he’s on a boat, but the occasion may be enough to tempt him out to sea.
Until then, he is thinking of nothing else besides research, testing and possible improvements. People like to ask him what he’ll do next, suggesting new problems for him, like ‘cleaning space’, or taking renewable energy by the scruff of the neck. He doesn’t listen.
‘I don’t know what the next thing is. The hope is that this can get to a stage where The Ocean Cleanup needs me less, but I’ve removed anything else from my frontal lobe in order to focus.’
Slat is a confident, intense man. He may or may not have the solution to one of the planet’s greatest puzzles, but he’s doing something about it – and that’s better than nothing. ‘I tell my team you have to aim for success, but assume failure,’ he says. ‘ To be honest, I didn’t come into this thinking whether or not it would succeed. I just thought it was important to at least try.’
Plastic debris will break up into tiny pieces in the ocean, although it will take hundreds of years for it to actually decompose
Boyan Slat has a plan, and it’s a good one. Guy Kelly meets an enterprising young inventor. Portrait by Chris de Bode
The problem of plastic pollution in the world’s seas is so huge as to seem insurmountable. But 23-year-old