Boyan Slat is 27 years old and in 2011, when he was just 16, he had an idea while diving in Greece and saw more plastic bags than fish. After the crash in the sea of Greece, he started to develop an idea that he presented as a science project. The idea grew and ended up becoming a company: The Ocean Cleanup.
Slat’s ambitious idea is to clean 90% of plastic waste from the ocean by 2040. The promise is highlighted this week, after the United Nations Ocean Conference, which ended today in Lisbon. According to the conclusions of the meeting, the preservation of the oceans requires “more ambition” from the leaders of each country.
The story started as a school project. It consisted of a series of floating barriers, anchored to the seabed. First they would capture and concentrate the floating debris. The plastic would move along the barriers towards a platform, where it would then be efficiently extracted.
This project was awarded Best Technical Project by Delft University of Technology, where he would later study Space Engineering. Six months after entering college, he decided to take the course to try to make his project a reality. All the money he had for the project was 200 euros (about R$630 at the time). The following months were spent looking for sponsorship.
He even gave a TEDx talk about his concept of how the oceans could be clean. The speech ended up going viral and the site gained prominence around the world. He set up a crowdfunding platform that raised $80,000 in 15 days.
According to the United Nations Environment Program there are, on average, 13,000 floating pieces of plastic per square kilometer of ocean. Many of these particles end up being accidentally ingested by marine animals, which can die as the plastic fills their stomachs.
Despite the enthusiasm and support he received after the lines went viral, Slat began to receive criticism about his project. One problem is that plastic is not just floating on the surface, but is found throughout the body of water, even in sediments on the ocean floor.
The first attempts also began to fail. In September 2018, the Ocean Cleanup launched a giant plastic sink into the Pacific Ocean with the aim of cleaning the waters of tons of waste. Months later, the 609.6 m long device had to return to dry land and undergo repairs, as part of the barrier broke. Also, as the device lost its shape, some of the recovered debris escaped collection.
In late July 2021, the project attempted to launch a new system on a large scale. According to the company, the tests were successful and the technology was approved. Now, the idea is to increase the fleet to clean more regions of the ocean.