INTERVIEW: Boyan Slat, Teenage Inventor of the Ocean Cleanup Array

Last year, inventor Boyan Slat made waves by designing an “Ocean Cleanup Array” which he claimed could remove 72.5 million tons of plastic from the world’s oceans. Although his idea received criticism from some quarters, a year-long feasibility study concluded that the idea will work. 

Not just that—it could potentially remove half the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within a decade. The last 12 months have been a whirlwind for the young inventor; he’s given talks around the world and conducted tests in The Azores. We sat down with Boyan Slat to ask him about his inspiration, dealing with criticism and what the future holds for the Ocean Cleanup Array.

You’re 19 years old—how did you get started with your ocean cleanup project?

SLAT: When I was 16 years old, I was diving in Greece and suddenly I realized I came across more plastic bags than fish in the ocean. For my high school science project I then dedicated half a year to understanding the problem itself, and why floating ocean plastic is so difficult to clean up. I’d always been interested in engineering, and then came up with a concept of how I thought we could feasibly clean theocean garbage patches. In October of 2012 I presented this idea at a TEDx conference, and then spent several months with professors and industry experts, compiling a list of 50 questions that should be answered in order to confirm feasibility. One year ago the idea suddenly went viral on the internet, which enabled me to raise funds and assemble a team of 100 people, which whom I’ve now published an extensive study indicating the concept’s feasibility.

Can you summarize in a nutshell, to a non-technical layperson, how your Ocean Cleanup Array works?

SLAT: In the past there have been many concepts aimed at cleaning plastic from the oceans, but these were all based on vessels with nets, that would fish for plastic. Not only would this take billions of dollars and 79,000 years, but it would also create by-catch and emissions. Not a very attractive proposal. Furthermore the plastic rotates in the areas where the plastic concentrates, so it does not stay in one spot. So I wondered; why move through the oceans, if the oceans can move through you? I came up with a passive system of floating barriers that is attached to the seabed, and oriented in a V-shape. The barriers first catch, and then concentrate the plastic, enabling a platform to efficiently extract the plastic once it arrives in the center of the V.

How did you feel about the level of support your Cleanup Array received from around the world last year?

SLAT: Since in our opinion the attention was slightly premature, we immediately decided to put all media requests on hold, eventually totaling about 400 of them. On the plus side though, it enabled us to assemble a team to get the feasibility research going.

Were you likewise surprised at the level of criticism you received? And did you feel that at any point, people were being overly critical because of your age?

SLAT: I did expect this to happen. This is something I call the “inventor’s dilemma”. To further develop an idea, you are forced to do some communication: setting up a webpage, talking to people, etc., but with the risk it gets picked up by the media, and you get criticized by peers because it is just an idea. I do not think this was related to my age per se. What may have had to do with it was the fact that there had been many cleanup proposals in the past years, though all of them based on vessels with nets that would inefficiently fish for plastics. But while those ideas ended with the fancy artist’s impressions, for us that was just the beginning.

What have the past 12 months been like in terms of not only proving your concept, but in gathering a team to help you accomplish this?

SLAT: The managing thing was challenging, I must admit. Especially in the first half of last year there wasn’t a lot of time to be personally involved with the engineering. 100 people are a lot of people, but what made it challenging was that most of them were part-time volunteers, and a proportion is always situated abroad. Our load oceanographer works from Australia, for example.

Your proof of concept tests in the Azores went well. Tell us about the next steps you and your team are taking in the implementation of your feasibility study.

SLAT: The largest test we have done so far was 40 m this March, but in the 3rd (implementation) phase the scale will be 100 km. To bridge this gap, through a series of up-scaled tests we will now work towards a large-scale and operational pilot in 3-4 years’ time. Simultaneous to that we will continue the in-depth engineering and oceanographic field research to further optimize the structure.

What have been the most surprising results you have seen so far in your tests? What were you not expecting to see?

SLAT: I think a good example would be our process engineering work. The quality of the plastics turned out to be much better than expected, lab analyses showed. Even more surprising was that [we could turn the plastic into] oil comparable to what you would expect when using normal waste plastics. But then the (unsorted) plastic even turned out to be suitable for recycling into new materials! To show this, we even made the cover of the feasibility study book out of ocean plastic.

How can we stop the plastic debris problem at the source? Where would you start if you were also working on tackling that problem?

SLAT: There is no single answer to preventing plastic from reaching the oceans. It starts with raising awareness about the existence of the problem. Many people and organizations have aimed to do so in the past decade, and this is also something I hope will be a valuable side-effect of The Ocean Cleanup. However, I don’t think this will be enough to significantly stem the flow of new plastics into the oceans on the short term. Infrastructural improvements, legislation aimed at certain high-risk products like microbeads, and alternative materials are different aspects. The Ocean Cleanup has plans to explore the possibilities of intercepting plastic in rivers before it reaches the oceans in the upcoming phase of the project.

 In one of your talks, you mention how using nets is ineffective against garbage patches such as the one in the Pacific. What do you think people could do in their daily lives to make an impact, apart from use less plastic bags?

In short: making sure no more plastic enters the oceans in the first place. For example, by supporting the different aspects mentioned in question 8.

How can people help support your work?

SLAT: We have now launched a crowd funding campaign, to help raise funds for the testing phase of the project. We aim to raise over two million USD in 100 days through www.theoceancleanup.com. So far we are still on schedule, for which we would like to thank the 15,000 people that backed the campaign so far.

There has been so much disheartening news about ocean pollution in recent years, including images of all manner of sea life being injured (or killed) by stray bits of plastic floating around. The Ocean Cleanup Array could make an enormous impact on the health and well-being of the oceans (and sea life within them), and can also encourage us to be far more diligent about the plastic items we use and discard,and the garbage we create in general. Each and every one of us can help to keep trash out of the ocean. What measures have you taken to reduce your own household waste? Please let us know in the comments section below!