While we are able to enjoy our romantic glamping UK trips without the worry of being surrounded by litter and discarded plastic, other places around the world aren’t so lucky. This brings us to the story we were made aware of regarding a young man named Boyan Slat, a 20-year-old on a mission – to rid the world’s oceans of floating plastic.
This devoted and dedicated young man has his committed his teenage years to figuring out a way of collecting this sea of floating plastic polluting the waters. We decided to ask, can the system really work – and for the sceptics, is there any point in these efforts when so much new plastic waste is still flowing into the sea on a daily basis?
Originally, the idea came to him when he was 16, back in the summer of 2011, when he was enjoying some diving in Greece. Boyan was quite frankly shocked, and furthermore, he became even more concerned to learn that there was no apparent solution.
During the last 3 or 4 decades there has sadly been millions of tonnes of plastic that have entered our oceans. In total, the global production of plastic currently stands at 288 million tonnes annually, of which a worrying 10% ends up in our oceans in time. 80% of that 10 percent comes from land-based sources. It goes like this; litter gets swept into drains, and ends up in rivers – so that plastic straw or cup lid you accidentally dropped, the cigarette butt your friend discarded on the road – those are the things that could all end up in our sea.
The plastic is eventually carried by currents and gathers together in five revolving water systems, called gyres, in our major oceans. The most notorious location is the huge Pacific Garbage Patch, found half way between Hawaii and California.
Plastic is spread out over an area twice the size of Texas in these areas. Additionally, the plastic doesn’t just stay in one spot, it rotates. These factors combined equate to making clean-up efforts unbelievably challenging.
Furthermore, it would be extremely costly financially and in terms of energy, not to mention the fish that would be caught up in the clean-up nets accidentally.
This got Slat to thinking, and at school, he advanced his idea further in conjunction with a science project. A collection of floating barriers, that were anchored to the sea bed, would first catch and concentrate the floating debris. Following this initial step, the plastic would then move along the barriers towards a platform, where it could then be efficiently extracted. The ocean current would pass harmlessly underneath the barriers, taking all buoyant sea life with it. There would be no emissions involved, and no nets whatsoever for marine life to get snared in. The result of collected ocean plastic would be to have it recycled and turned into products – or oil.
The high school science project was awarded Best Technical Design at Delft University of Technology, in the Netherlands. At the risk of offending the teenage readers, for most at that stage, their project would probably have ended there, but not Slat, Slat was different, he was determined.
Slat began studying aerospace engineering at Delft University and he was still intent on making his creation a reality, so he set up a foundation, The Ocean Cleanup, and explained his concept in a TedX Talk: How the Oceans can Clean Themselves. It was at the six month point into his course that Slat made the choice to pause both university and social life to try and transform his pipedream into the real thing.
The extent of Slat’s budget comprised of 200 euros (£160) from saved-up pocket money, so he spent a few tasking months trying to raise some sponsorship.
On 26 March 2013, things looked up for Slat. Months after it had been posted online, Slat’s TedX talk went viral. He set up a crowd-funding platform that made 80 thousand dollars (50.8 thousand pounds) in 15 days.
The UN Environment Programme stated that on average 13,000 pieces of floating plastic per square kilometre are present in our oceans – but that goes up to millions of pieces in the aforementioned gyres. Worryingly, many of these particles end up being accidentally ingested by marine animals, often resulting in them dying of starvation due to the plastic filling their stomachs.
Equally, Albatrosses are particularly vulnerable because they feed on the eggs of flying fish, which are attached to floating objects – now most likely to be a piece of plastic. Experts have given a range of examples of these objects including a toothbrush, cigarette lighters, and floaters from fish nets, a golf ball, and a tampon applicator – all items were found in albatross chick’s carcasses.
A critical situation for the environment, wouldn’t you agree? So when Slat came along with an apparently simple resolution, he began making headlines around the globe. His enthusiasm got millions of people enthused, but as with most things, where there is support and encouragement there is criticism. Some simply said it wouldn’t work. Others contended that resources would be better used to collect litter from beaches, where it gets deposited by waves.
Slat drew together a team of 100 people, mainly volunteers, who were spread out across the world – the lead oceanographer was based in Australia.
During the feasibility study Slat visited the gyre known as the North Atlantic Garbage Patch, where the platform is destined to be built.
In June, a month before his 20th birthday, Slat re-emerged with a 530-page feasibility report, the cover of which was made out of recycled ocean plastic. The report, based on extensive testing and computer simulations and authored by 70 scientists and engineers, answered many of the questions which had been levelled at him by his critics. It was followed by another crowd-funding campaign which swiftly reached its target of $2m. This will fund a larger pilot next year and Slat hopes the North Atlantic platform could be a reality in 2020.
In the meantime, several other companies are now emerging with clean-up technology designed to capture plastic in rivers and streams, like the Plastic Visser (‘plastic fisher’) which is being trialled in the Netherlands, or the Trash Wheel – a solar-and water-powered barrier being used in Baltimore harbour.