One Huge Scoop at a Time: Innovations in Removing Plastic from Oceans and Waterways
Cleaning oceans of over 20 billion tons of plastic waste is a daunting task and passionate commitment for Boyan Slat, 27-year-old Dutch inventor and entrepreneur. Age 18, he conceptualized a way to use the natural forces in the oceans to passively gather plastic so cleanup time could be reduced to years instead of millennia.
Slat targeted an area known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch for the first big clean up, however, he needed to know more about the plastic in that area to know how to build the system he imagined. Researchers had been mapping data on ocean plastic since the 1970s, but the data was scattered and biased toward smaller pieces due to the methods used in sampling. To gather the information he needed, an unprecedented mapping project was initiated. By coordinating 50 boats taking samples at the same time, he was able to gain critical information for designing an effective system.
To safely collect floating plastic without harm to fish or plankton, Slat designed a system of floating booms and processing platforms. Once gathered, plastic can be brought to shore for repurposing or recycling.
In September 2018, Slat and his team the launched the world’s first ocean cleanup system from San Francisco, and deployment inside the Great Pacific Garbage Patch followed soon after. Increasing efficiency is ongoing, and its latest system iteration, System 002 (a.k.a. Jenny), began cleanup in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in late 2021. In the first five months of operation, 40,273kg of plastic was collected and reported effects on marine life were more negligible than expected.
Slat is CEO of The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit organization developing and scaling technologies to rid the oceans of plastic. He gives lead to a team of about 80 people, but spends most of his time on research and engineering.
Slat has received recognition and multiple awards for his innovative accomplishments including the UN’s highest environmental accolade—Champion of the Earth. The Ocean Cleanup is also working on scalable ways to efficiently intercept plastic in rivers before it reaches the oceans.