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Clean oceans all around
Cleaning plastic from every ocean is the goal Dutch inventor Boyan Slat (23) set himself. His idea grew into a giant-scale project: The Ocean Cleanup. Over 5 trillion pieces of plastic are floating around in the oceans, accumulating in 5 garbage patches, with the largest one being the Great Pacific Garbage Patch between Hawaii and California.
Where did you get the idea to clean plastic from the oceans?
When I was 16, I went diving in Greece, and I found more plastic floating around than actual fish. I was shocked. It got me thinking. Why can’t we manage to clean this up? A ‘simple’ question, but it kept me busy for years. I decided to find a solution and threw myself into it, developing a concept. In 2012, I enrolled at Delft University of Technology to study aerospace engineering. But I never stopped working on my concept. That year, my design won the university’s Best Technical Design award, and I started The Ocean Cleanup a year later, in 2013.
How did you develop the concept of The Ocean Cleanup?
We started researching several questions. How much plastic is actually floating about? How does it move around? And how can we get it out? It’s important not to start chasing the plastic, because that might take centuries. The trick is to get the plastic to come to you. We’re determined to clean every bit of plastic from all five oceans, and with my techniques, we will be able to clean up half of the garbage patches in the north of the Pacific Ocean within five years.
How does it work?
At this point, several hundred million kilos of plastic have accumulated in the world’s oceans. We have positioned installations with floating U-shaped arms – which are 2km long each – at strategic locations in the water. The natural current then pushes plastic towards the installations, where it is captured by the arms. Basically, the system works as a magnet. Every few months, a tanker goes out to pick up the plastic that has been collected. In order to clean up every ocean around the world, we’ll probably need 60 of these installations.
How did you get the project off the ground?
Thanks to successful crowdfunding and lots of media attention, we managed to raise two million euros within three months. Big Silicon Valley names, such as entrepreneur and philanthropist Marc Benioff, also believe in The Ocean Cleanup and support us financially. So does Peter Thiel, who founded PayPal and was Facebook’s first investor. The plastic problem turned out to be bigger than I thought at first. I figured two million euros and ten employees would be enough, but so far we’ve raised 35 million euros and hired 75 people. Cleaning every ocean will probably require hundreds of millions of euros.
When do you expect every ocean to be free of plastic?
This year, in May or June, we’ll start with the most polluted part of the five areas in the north of the Pacific, where more than half of all floating plastic is located. It’s so bad that the sea current between Hawaii and the American West Coast has become known as the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’. Projections are that most of the plastic, some 90% of it, will be removed by 2040. The home stretch is always the hardest, and that will apply to the last pieces of small-scale plastic debris as well.
But aren’t you fighting a losing battle?
Cleaning up the oceans doesn’t immediately solve the original problem, of course. But I notice that people around the world have become more aware of the dangers involved, perhaps in part to The Ocean Cleanup. It’s become a hot topic. Every bit of attention to prevent plastic pollution is essential to help finish our job. From beach cleanups to other small-scale projects – they all contribute to preventing a new load of plastic floating away to deep-sea areas.
KLM’s Flying Blue members can donate their Miles to The Ocean Cleanup. How does that help?
For The Ocean Cleanup, we travel a lot, both to do research and to get the execution of the project going. Thanks to Miles donated by Flying Blue members, we fly free of charge with KLM. This year, we’ll be flying to San Francisco with at least half of our team, which enables us to get started on the Pacific leg of the project. So, we’re deeply grateful for the support and the savings.
Donating Miles to a great cause
KLM’s frequent travellers earn Flying Blue Miles which can be saved up and put towards extra comfort, other flights or car rentals. However they can also be put towards good causes and charities, such as The Ocean Cleanup, Wings of Support and the Red Cross.