Observation is often the start of greatness.

It was through a scuba diving experience that the, then, 16 year old Boyan Slat noticed the incredible amount of plastic in the Greek ocean he was in. The sad reality, consequence of years of irresponsible human consumption behavior, created a spark for innovation that would have a global impact.

What followed is simply a brilliant story.

Boyan developed an ambitious and inspiring goal: To remove all plastic from the oceans.

Start of The Journey

The video below, recorded in 2012 after he graduated from high-school, shows Boyan almost at the start of his journey: Passionate about the cause, secure of his initial vision and highly motivated to cause an impact.

But how and where to start?

The journey started alone, without hardly any support. It was this way that he went independently to develop his first sample collections in Greece and analyzed data.

This initial experience gave him greater clarity of the challenges ahead. For example, the immense amount of minor plastic particles that are mixed with plankton in the water. Thee represent perhaps the greatest threat and are certainly the hardest to capture.

But perhaps the most astonishing surprise was the estimate of the amount of plastic in the waters, according to professors and researchers:

By 2020, it was estimated that our oceans will contain 7.25 million tons of extractable plastic.

This came to show the size of his challenge. Yes, the amount of plastic was enormous and defining the appropriate technique of extraction without damaging the environment was crucial, but perhaps even more challenging was developing the implementation required for the task.

Founding “The Ocean Cleanup”

The TED talk above gave Boyan the notoriety he needed. With only 300 Euros he founded “The Ocean Cleanup” and soon later, with the media repercussion of the presentation, the start-up received its first private funding.

However, in 2014 the notoriety of the start-up enabled the development of a very successful crowdfunding initiative. Over 38,000 people from 160 countries contributed and $2.2 million was raised in 100 days.

Simply incredible.

With the money the company hired professionals and made their first expeditions mostly on the North Atlantic ocean. This enabled a crucial step: DATA collection and analysis, of, for example, vertical distribution of plastic.

Here is one the expeditions measuring vertical distribution:

Some of the results were then published on the HIGHLY regarded journal Nature Reports and can be found here.

The Mega Expedition

By 2015 the company was already respected, producing and publishing its first results, with audience support and settled as an organization. That is when they developed an incredible feat:

The largest ocean research expedition EVER.  

30 vessels sailed between Hawaii and California mapping an area of 3.5 million square meters and was able to collect a greater amount of data on oceanic plastic than in the previous 40 years.

Here is are two videos of the mega expedition:

The expedition was crucial for numerous reasons: it enabled the analysis of more plastic parts, a better calculation of the amount of plastic in the oceans and improvement of the technology required for the process.

Below you can see a super insightful interactive map of the expedition that allows a much clearer understanding of the area covered during the journey:

Interactive map of the ocean cleanup
Source: Interactive map of The Ocean Cleanup expedition in 2015. (Click to access).

Testing and Developing a Prototype

Also in 2015 another very important step was developed: A scale test of “The Ocean Cleanup’s” system at¬†maritime research institutes Deltares and MARIN.

This was of extreme relevance to develop the system through repeated experiments on a controlled environment. The tests were successful and allowed the team to improve their systems against the dangers of large waves, lengthy barriers and much more.

Here is a video from the testing:

In 2016 it was time to implement at a much larger scale what had been previously done at a much smaller scale indoors. This brings tough challenges, but represents a vital step on the process towards maturing the technology to clean the oceans. Despite all difficulties, a 100 meter-long barrier segment was deployed successfully in the North Sea for nearly two months.

Aerial Expedition To Map Plastic From The Sky

However, the team felt there was still an important aspect that required improvement: a more precise identification of the AMOUNT of plastic in the oceans. Thus, a radical solution was chosen: to use a radar to measure the amount o plastic in the water using an airplane.

The result was depressing: the problem is much worse than previously considered, as the amount of plastic is much greater than expected.

Conclusions and Next Steps

The Ocean Cleanup is currently developing its project and pursuing its road to cleaning our environment. It represents a revolutionary company that in less than 5 years has had a profound positive impact in our planet.

Only dreamers change the world and Boyan Slat is certainly one of them.

I have no doubt they will provide an immense contribution to the world. In fact, they already have.

With the support coming from other technologies such as artificial intelligence, finding solutions will be faster than planned.

Obviously, there are many challenges still. If we do not change our consumption behavior the cause of the problem will persist. And this represents another immense battle.

Moreover, I believe Boyan is absolutely right in also focusing to show the private sector that, given the huge amounts, selling the plastic which is gathered in the oceans is highly profitable when sold. This suggests that the entire business of cleaning the oceans is a profitable one.

This is the only argument that the majority of the private sector understands.

I will certainly always keep an eye on “The Ocean Cleanup” and their development. And I hope you do too, following them on social media (Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn) or even helping to fund the project.

They are truly an “Inspiring Brand”.