11 Sep 2019 Story Chemicals & waste

Boyan Slat: Dutch engineer-turned-cleaner puts faith in humanity’s ‘better angels’

In September 2019, the UN Environment Programme will honour Champions of the Earth, outstanding environmental leaders from the public and private sectors, and from civil society who have had a transformative positive impact on the environment. Here we meet previous winners of this prestigious award and find out how they still are making a difference in their communities and across the globe.

When 20-year-old Boyan Slat accepted the United Nations Champion of the Earth award in 2014 for his efforts to clear the ocean of plastic, he made two predictions: that the road ahead would be bumpy and that he would not give up.

Five years later, both those forecasts have come true: Slat is as committed as ever to clearing plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch using a revolutionary U-shape floater that acts like an artificial coastline. But he has certainly hit those bumps he foresaw.

Despite setbacks and criticism, Slat has no intention of giving up, not least because he believes his project, The Ocean Cleanup, is part of a tide of innovation that could deliver solutions to the world’s most intractable environmental problems.

“I’m a strong believer that action inspires action, so creating examples of how we solve the problem by using the best humanity has to offer—our ingenuity, our ability to create things out of the blue and our ability to collaborate and effectively work together—that’s what the world needs,” he said.

“Too often people working on environmental issues can be negative… Rather than rally against the things we don’t agree with, we should embrace the better angels of our nature and use them to solve these problems.”

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Photo by theoceancleanup

It all started for Slat when he was a high school student and went on a scuba diving trip to Greece. Appalled by how much plastic he found in the water, he decided to work on a solution. Since then, his initial concepts have matured, he has founded The Ocean Cleanup project and raised millions of dollars to fund his revolutionary work. His Twitter profile puts it succinctly: Studied aerospace engineering, becomes a cleaner.

It’s been a roller-coaster few years and that’s before you consider what’s been going on miles out to sea in the world’s largest gyre, or floating garbage patch.

Slat and his team took their first cleanup array, System 001—a 600-metre floater that sits on the surface with a tapered three-metre-deep screen that hangs down and prevents plastic from floating away—to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in September 2018, but there were issues. The system failed to retain the plastic because it was not moving at a consistent speed. Then, in January, it had to be taken back to port for repairs.

A second iteration called System 001/B, which Slat hopes will address these problems, has now been launched and is being put through its paces at the enormous marine dump between Hawaii and the West Coast of the United States.

Marine scientists and others have taken aim at Slat’s project, saying it is distracting attention from efforts to curb plastic use, and will never work.

Slat argues that although efforts to encourage people not to use so much plastic are critical, we must also deal with the plastic already poisoning fish, birds and other marine creatures. Some critics are locked in a kind of status quo bias, he says.

“If you accept that logic, you might as well ask if we should stop cleaning the streets because that’s only encouraging people to pollute,” he said. “Seeing people working hard to clean up what’s out there can send an inspiring message that draws people’s attention and inspires others to also do something about the problem.”

Every year, at least eight million tonnes of plastic leak into our oceans—the equivalent of dumping a garbage truck of plastic every minute. In 2017, the UN Environment Programme launched its Clean Seas campaign to inspire governments, businesses and people to take action.

Slat’s dedication to the cause is rooted in his character, his passion for solving complex puzzles and a keen sense of responsibility.

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Photo by theoceancleanup

“I do think I’m a little stubborn: when I start something, I want to see it through and make it happen. Ninety-nine per cent of the time when something fails it’s because people give up too early. I’m quite persistent,” he said.

He is hopeful that the team solved System 001/B’s speed issue but there is still a problem with plastic slipping into what he calls The Twilight Zone, the space between the screen and the floater. He calls this overtopping.

“We need to resolve the overtopping to have something you can deploy in the ocean and leave for months, and it safely retains the plastic for that period of time,” he said, noting candidly that other problems could also rear their heads.

“You never really know when you’ve reached proven concept because there might be unknown unknowns that we haven’t discovered yet. If it’s really just the overtopping, I’m confident we will be able to solve that in the coming months, but the question is whether that’s the only thing between us now and having proven technology,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, Slat believes technology will be critical to building a more sustainable future but whereas in the past the focus was on human well-being, now technology must be harnessed for the survival of the planet. And it will need to find novel ways to encourage people to do whatever it takes to sustain the systems that support life.

“Rather than everyone voluntarily becoming vegan, the solution will be fake and artificial meat. Rather than people voluntarily trying to give up flying, it will be zero emission aircraft technology, rather than nobody using cars, it’s going to be electric cars,” he said.

“We are starting to see a young generation that gets that and is excited about a future like that, but the question still comes down to: are we going fast enough and how much damage will have been done before we get there?”

True to this vision, Slat’s own champions of the earth include Bertrand Piccard, a solar aviation pioneer and United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, as well as people who work in clean energy.

Slat relishes technical challenges—that’s part of the attraction of The Ocean Cleanup project—but beyond that he is motivated by his love for nature, especially the ocean.

“Being underwater is the closest you can get to being an astronaut,” he said. “I look forward to the day when I’ll be able to scuba dive and not come across plastic. That’s really the dream.”