This 20-Year-Old Invented a New Way to Clean Up the Oceans

The Ocean Cleanup
The Ocean Cleanup / The Ocean Cleanup

In summer 2011, Dutch student Boyan Slat was a 16-year-old on a scuba diving vacation in Greece. He was appalled by the amount of plastic garbage he encountered out in the water, and he based his next year's high school science project on trying to understand why the masses of floating plastic are so hard to clean up. By 2013, Slat had dropped out of his aerospace engineering program and founded The Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit aiming to clear the oceans of plastic debris, powered by 100 volunteer scientists and engineers.

An aerial overview of the trash-collecting boom // The Ocean Cleanup

And now, after a feasibility study has determined that Slat's invention—a 2000-meter boom called the Coastal Pilot that shepherds debris into a central receptacle—is viable, Slat announced at the Seoul Digital Forum on May 20 that his company would deploy their cleanup system in 2016 off the coast of Tsushima, an island located between Japan and South Korea. Within five years, they plan to launch other systems, including one aiming to clean up roughly 70,000 tons of netting, plastic bags, bottle caps, and Styrofoam snarled in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

How does it work? Slat's device uses the ocean's natural currents to power the cleanup. Trash collects in gyres, enormous circular currents where massive garbage islands cluster. It's in one of these that Coastal Pilot will be put to the test. The boom is a platform with floating barriers that is anchored to the ocean floor with relatively thin cables. The ocean does the rest of the work. Wind and surface currents push the debris toward the boom, and the trash ebbs and flows its way toward the center collection platform. The main ocean currents pass beneath. Fish and mammals can swim underneath the floating boom (which only extends 2 to 3 meters below the surface), so marine life is unlikely to become entangled as by-catch—a huge problem for any ocean device that uses nets.

Boyan Slat and some of the garbage his invention has collected from the ocean // The Ocean Cleanup

Slat's immense ocean cleanup system, which is more than four times the length of the Empire State Building, won't launch until next spring, but the implications could be huge if his plan works. His company has crowdsourced more than $2 million to help fund their efforts. Slat, now 20, knows that he's tackling a nearly impossible situation. "It's in my nature that when people say something is impossible, I like to prove them wrong," Slat has said. But, as he concedes, "it is probable that we will encounter several uncertainties—what we want to do has never been done."