Guy Kelly meets Boyan Slat, the 23-year-old in­ven­tor de­ter­mined to rid the world’s oceans of their plas­tic scourge

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - NEWS - Pre­vi­ous page Dead black-footed al­ba­tross chick, at Mid­way Atoll, in the Pa­cific Ocean; Boyan Slat, pho­tographed at his of­fice in Delft, July 2017

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.’

The prob­lem of plas­tic pol­lu­tion in the world’s seas is so huge as to seem in­sur­mount­able. But 23-year-old

Boyan Slat has a plan, and it’s a good one. Guy Kelly meets an en­ter­pris­ing young in­ven­tor. Por­trait by Chris de Bode

Plas­tic de­bris will break up into tiny pieces in the ocean, although it will take hun­dreds of years for it to ac­tu­ally de­com­pose

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