Grocery bags. Bottle caps. Water bottles. Each year, an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic enters the world’s oceans, wreaking havoc on ecosystems and killing more than 1 million marine animals.
It wasn’t what 16-year-old Boyan Slat expected to see when he took his first scuba dive off the coast of Greece in 2010.
Devastated to find more plastic than fish, he wondered why it couldn’t be cleaned up. The thought overshadowed his studies until Slat dropped out of his aerospace engineering studies at Delft University of Technology to look for the answer full time. In 2013, he became the CEO of The Ocean Cleanup, with just €300 in seed money.
Slat was specifically interested in cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating pile of trash bobbing halfway between the U.S. states of Hawaii and California. Formed in an area where currents meet, this trash vortex covers an estimated 1.6 million square kilometers (618,000 square miles)—roughly three times the size of France. He envisioned a floating system that would leverage the currents to wrangle the floating trash. But testing the idea would require an investment of US$15 million—and that was a long way off.
In 2016, Slat and The Ocean Cleanup got their first big break. With €1.5 million in funding from the government of the Netherlands, an anonymous donor and a marine contractor, they deployed the world’s first ocean cleanup system in the North Sea. Though the pilot project exposed some serious design flaws, Slat remained confident his technology could work.
Donors around the world believed him, too. In 2017, The Ocean Cleanup raised US$21.7 million for its first trials in the Pacific Ocean. The team’s forays into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch haven’t always gone to plan, however. The system didn’t keep plastic contained, and in 2018 a large section broke off and needed to be brought to shore for repairs. The Ocean Cleanup team still believes it will be able to remove 90 percent of marine plastic pollution by 2040.
Meanwhile, Slat has expanded his focus to the world’s rivers. Last year, his team unveiled an autonomous, solar-powered catamaran designed to keep plastic trash from entering the ocean—stopping pollution at its source. Dubbed the Interceptor, the technology aims to extract 50,000 kilograms (110,000 pounds) of plastic a day. Two Interceptors are already at work on projects in Indonesia and Malaysia, and The Ocean Cleanup is out to launch them in 1,000 rivers worldwide by 2025.
“To truly rid the oceans of plastic, we need to both clean up the legacy and close the tap, preventing more plastic from reaching the oceans in the first place,” Slat says. “The solutions now exist to address both sides of the equation.”