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That young man who wants to clean up the oceans

That young man who wants to clean up the oceans

On the occasion of Earth Day, the Biodôme is pleased to present the project of a young Dutchman who’s harboring a potential for hope that all of us need.

250 million kilos* of plastic in the oceans

In 2011, at the age of 16, during a dive, Boyan Slat discovered just how much the sea is littered with plastic. The material has the faults inherent in its qualities: it’s virtually indestructible. Only sunlight and the oxygen in the air can break it down – after 500 years (or even 1,000, if it’s submerged).

Boyan was appalled. He took advantage of a high-school project to develop an idea that would earn him the prize for Best Technical Design from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.

Can the oceans really be cleaned up?

Boyan isn’t the first person to look for an effective technology aimed at removing plastic from the oceans. To date, the proposed techniques have consisted in going back and forth over these floating patches of plastic with filtering devices. But given the extent of the surfaces that need to be covered, it would take thousands of years and billions of dollars to clean up so much as one of those patches. And besides, fish, birds and other marine organisms would get picked up as well.

Let the oceans come to us

Boyan’s idea is both simple and effective. Rather than traveling over the immense garbage patches, let’s allow the currents to bring the plastic to us. He suggests installing a 100-kilometer floating boom across the path of the gyre (circular current) in the North Pacific. The current and the marine organisms it carries with it will pass under the boom, while the floating plastic will be captured and funneled to a processing platform.

Determined to go through with his idea

In October 2012, Boyan gave a TED conference talk that went viral in an enormous way. He founded The Ocean Cleanup, a foundation made up of 100 or so scientists and other collaborators. The immense popularity of his idea earned him record financing of $2 million US in less than 100 days.

Trial runs with bigger and bigger installations should conclude, in 2020, with the installation of the final structure in the North Pacific. The goal: pick up half the plastic from that gyre (35 million kilos) in ten years.

First take action at the source

Cleaning up the oceans shouldn’t distract us from our obligation to reduce and recycle our waste. Plastic continues to be dumped into the sea (9 million metric tons per year). We have to redouble our efforts if we don’t want plastic to destroy the marine ecosystems on our planet.

*Eriksen & al., Plastic Pollution in the World's Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea, 2014

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