Modern Dutch heroes: Boyan Slat

What did you want to do when you were a teenager? What did you want to do in the future? If you were like me, you probably wanted to have fun with friends, travel and see the world, and a job that sounded cool at the time (me, I wanted to be a pediatrician). And we all probably wanted to give back in some way. But most of us probably didn’t think we would change the whole world, or at least not in a seismic way – except for Boyan Slat.

Boyan Slat is an inventor, entrepreneur and climate advocate who is the CEO of The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit start-up organization that seeks to rid the world’s oceans and waterways of the world of plastics and debris. This gigantic undertaking has been more than 7 years in the making and is getting close to full-scale deployment of dozens of debris-extracting systems. Once deployed, the organization predicts that it will take 5 years to clean up 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This is a feat that sounds almost too grand to really even wrap your head around it.

To give Mr. Slat’s ambitious – but entirely doable – task some context: plastic-filled garbage makes its way from our garbage to rivers and waterways around the globe, which in turns carry this waste to the planet’s oceans. There are currently five large concentrations of these ‘garbage patches’, the largest being the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a concentration of plastic and trash that is swirling between California and Hawaii, that is the size of Texas. And anyone who’s driven or even flown across Texas knows that is huge!

Researchers, engineers and environmental advocates have been working for years on developing a workable and scalable solution to clean this mess up, while not disrupting the delicate marine ecosystem, and being as carbon-neutral as possible. The best estimates of the time this colossal task would take was 78,000 years (yes, you read that correctly).

So, while designers and engineers continued to do what they could, the oceans continued – and continue – to get filled with massive volumes of plastic garbage. It is estimated that the volume of plastic pouring into the oceans every week could fill the Empire State Building two times. And anyone whose been to New York City or even seen a postcard image of the skyline knows that that is a lot of plastic. And plastic garbage is not just in these ocean patches; it is littering beaches, reefs and killing marine life. The plastic problem has grown from the beach of developing nations all the way to the pristine beaches of the Greeks islands, where Boyan Slat and his family were vacationing circa 2010.

While diving in the Aegean Sea on that Greek vacation, 16-year-old Boyan was shocked to discover more plastic trash than fish in the water. Most people would be disappointed with seeing so much plastic, but Boyan was more than just disappointed – he was inspired. He took this experience and used it as the subject of a high school project and through the next few years thought learned what he could about the problem and dreamed of the solution.

As a student in aerospace engineering at the acclaimed Delft University of Technology, Boyan started The Ocean Cleanup in 2013 and began raising capital to fund the project. Investors include Mark Benioff (CEO of Salesforce), Maersk cargo shipping and Royal DSM. The organization has just completed several runs of its version 2 ocean prototype (the Jenny, named after Robin Wright’s character in Forest Gump) and its version 1 river prototype (the Inceptor) and is now ready for wider-scale deployment. It is estimated that 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch will be cleaned up with only 3,000 deployments of the Jenny. With ten ships, that’s only 300 trips per ship.

Not only do these machines extract, sort, clean and index every piece of trash that they clean up, they also create plastic pellets that companies can purchase and make into consumer goods. The Ocean Cleanup has also teamed up with designers and eyewear manufacturers to create designer sunglasses as a proof of concept and to continue funding the project. Boyan Slat’s vision and goals have now expanded into the next phase of the world’s plastic problem.

While other entrepreneurs and CEOs are busy building rockets to fly (über-wealthy) people into outer space or are busy finding new ways to expand their wealth at the expense of online truth and privacy, Boyan Slat is looking to tackle world problems on a large scale and in a short time. The world needs more people like Boyan Slat, a true modern Dutch hero for the world.

Written by Marla Thomson