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Boyan Slat The Ocean Cleanup

A 23-year-old college dropout has big plans to rid the oceans of plastic waste

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There are nearly 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the world's oceans, but that's not stopping one Dutch college dropout from rising to the challenge to recycle every bit.

"It's getting worse... fast. The plastic is accumulating. It simply will not go away by itself."
Boyan Slat

So, at the age of 23, Boyan Slat founded "The Ocean Cleanup," a company that developed unique floating system technology that relies on the ocean's natural current to capture plastic, but not sea life. It may sound complicated, but the system is rather simple. A large pipe provides buoyancy to a closed U-shaped screen roughly 62 miles wide and nearly 2,000 feet deep. As a result, the screen is able to collect and concentrate the plastic in one area until a ship is able to load the debris in containers and take it away.

Global yearly plastic inputs

Pending successful trials in late 2017, Slat's technology will be deployed to what's called the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," an area between Hawaii and California naturally ridden with trash because of current patterns. In the past, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has described the water as "soupy," due to its mixture of larger-sized plastics and what's called "microplastics" -- material that's nearly naked to the human eye.

Slat focused his engineering expertise on developing technology that's able to capture larger-sized debris-- before sunlight exposure forces the plastic to break down into small, brittle pieces, or the so-called microplastics. Though these small materials roughly account for three percent of trash in the world's oceans, they, nonetheless, boast harmful ecological repercussions. That's because the tiny materials end up in the digestive system of marine life.

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Waste on a river bank, Myanmar, September 2016

"So not only does the plastic stay in the ocean," Slat explained at a October 2016 conference. "But it also because more harmful over time."

The young entrepreneur explained that microplastics "scare him the most" because almost all -- 97 percent -- of the ocean's plastic are larger-sized pieces that will eventually break down into smaller, dangerous pieces.

"Of course what will happen in the next few decades," Slat added, "[is] all these large objects will start breaking down into these small and dangerous plastics as well - -increasing the amount of microplastics dozens of times, unless we clean it up."

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According to The Ocean Cleanup's model testing, the floating system technology could remove nearly half of plastic concentrated in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

TRASH TALK: What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

In 2018, the autonomous, environmentally sustainable system is expected to hit waters, but only if test-run trials in 2018 are successful.

But the young entrepreneur's vision surpasses 2018. After a full-scale deployment in the North Pacific, he intends to launch the technology in other garbage-ridden areas in the Indian Ocean, North Atlantic, South Atlantic and South Pacific. The collected plastic will be sold and recycled--further funding the project's mission.

Reflecting on his experiences as an innovator, Slat said it was an uphill battle, particularly because critics thought his plans to create a more sustainable world were just too ambitious.

"Four years ago, when I founded The Ocean Cleanup, everyone told me that there was no way to clean up what's already out there, and the only thing you could do is avoid making it worse. But, to me, that was such an uninspiring message."
Boyan Slat

Despite skepticism, Slat was able to envision, launch and create a company that has gained the support of the Netherlands’ government, former NOAA chief scientist Rick Spinrad, as well as a host of investors.

Even the United Nations took notice of Slat’s work, awarding him the highest environmental accolade, "Champion of the Earth."

But it’s neither the recognition nor the prestigious awards that keep him going. Rather, his genuine appreciation for the world’s biodiversity provides him with a sense of fresh momentum and optimism.

“We can do this, and we must do this, and we will do this,” Slat added.

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Boyan Slat at the Aerial Expedition press event at Moffett Airfield in Mountain View, California on October 3, 2016.

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