Ocean Cleanup founder Boyan Slat in 2012 speaking at TEDx.

I first heard of the Ocean Cleanup in around 2012. Founder Boyan Slat stood on stage and gave an inspiring TED talk about his idea for cleaning large amounts of plastic from the ocean. At the time, he would have been a 17 or 18-year-old kid from the Netherlands. Standing on stage, speaking in English (not his native language), he was proposing to fix a problem created by rich people over 50 or 60 years; a problem started far before he was even born.

I had previously heard rumours about a problem in the North Pacific Ocean; a large circular gyre of currents that trap and concentrate plastic waste from a variety of sources. I had seen photos of birds, fish and marine mammals that had died from mistakenly ingesting plastic after thinking it was food, or after being tangled in discarded fishing nets. The Pacific gyre was double the size of the state of Texas and growing, and there were others in other oceans forming additional concentrated plastic fields as well.

Here was this kid, fearlessly standing on stage, determined to fix a problem that many of us didn’t even know existed. I was hooked. I started following his project online and would check in from time to time. By 2014 he had still been unable to find funding through traditional sources and started crowdfunding to finance his project. I stepped up and donated a small amount of cash. So too did many others. In fact, through his crowdfunding efforts, the Ocean Cleanup raised more than $2 million – enough to take the program to proof of concept and beyond.

Marine mammal and sea turtle populations benefitting from Endangered Species Act listing
Marine mammal and sea turtle populations benefiting from Ocean Cleanup.

Eight years later (or about 1/3 of his life so far), Mr. Slat is still pushing forward with his idea. In an age where most of our young people are either numbing with social media or paralyzed with fear of the future (or both), Boyan Slat and his team are pretty much single-handedly fixing the problem of ocean plastic. Not only has his group built the working prototypes, they have also spent a large amount of time researching the problem. You can hardly expect to fix a problem that you don’t even understand. The group now knows where the bulk of the plastic comes from, the size of the particles, the distribution in the water column, the damage it does to plants and animals, how it is affecting the food chain and even the fact that floating ocean plastic attracts other contaminants – forming a chemical soup even more toxic than was to be expected.

The Ocean Cleanup Interceptor™ river cleaning machine.

All of this effort would be pointless if the project didn’t work, but it does. After several design iterations of the cleanup device, it is now at sea and the cleanup has commenced. According to their website, the Ocean Cleanup is estimated to be able to remove 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch every five years. They haven’t stopped at just cleaning the ocean, they have tackled the problem at the root – the rivers where humans dump plastic waste. They know that it is naive to think that people will simply stop using plastic, or that companies will stop producing it, so they will soon have river based cleanup machines called Interceptors™ that remove plastic before it even enters the ocean. Most of the world’s ocean plastic comes from just 1000 rivers and their goal is to have all of them protected by Interceptors™ in the next 5 years.

Adidas running shoes made from “ocean plastic” – greenwashing or real?

But what happens to the plastic after it is removed? Ocean Cleanup has developed a process that reconstitutes the plastic to produce a new product that is clean, strong and non-toxic. The resulting recycled plastic may be used in the next generation of plastic manufacturing and provides consumers with the knowledge that products containing ocean plastic are actually benefiting the planet. This unique marketing angle is not just greenwashing or hype. Unlike so many other so-called ocean plastic type of products, material actually comes from recycled plastic found in the ocean. Imagine buying a chair or phone case made from recycled ocean plastic. Would you pay more knowing its source was from reclaimed materials that once were polluting the ocean? I know that I would (that’s why I support this program here).

I am extremely fortunate to have been born in a place where the air and water is mostly clean and the beaches are not clogged with pollution. But I have traveled to far away beaches and have seen first hand how bad the problem is. To be honest, at times I find the problem completely overwhelming. It is difficult to imagine the sheer size and scale of ocean plastic pollution and then when you consider how pervasive the use of plastic is and compare it to the number of people that live on or near the worlds oceans, the entire situation can seem rather hopeless.

Boyan Slat manages a team of 90 in Rotterdam.

For me, knowing that people like Boyan Slat exist in the world provides hope for the future. The ultimate goal of the Ocean Cleanup is to reach a 90% reduction of floating ocean plastic by the year 2040. 2040 is only 20 years away and in the meantime the Ocean Cleanup’s machines are cleaning the world’s oceans day in and day out, quietly and effectively collecting pollution, gradually making things better. It is interesting to think that by the time Mr. Slat reaches his 50th birthday, his inventions will have helped to improve our world so much.

Boyan himself says he doesn’t want to be to world’s garbage man forever, that he has other big ideas he wants to pursue. I only wonder what amazing things he will achieve in the next part of his life.

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