The United Nations’ highest environmental accolade sounds like a superhero: Champion of the Earth. And in 2014, this prestigious title was awarded to an individual barely out of his teens, Boyan Slat. Slat is a Dutch entrepreneur with a passion for saving the world—more specifically, global sustainability practices. His pride and joy, the project that has garnered him such notoriety as to receive an award that sounds like it should come with a cape, is a functional plan to clean up the oceans.
There are five massive accumulations of floating garbage in our oceans, called gyres; the debris is pushed and pulled by the currents until it collects together en masse. A recent study by researchers in both Spain and Australia found that at least 88% of our oceans’ surface is covered in plastic castaways. While we all can readily acknowledge that 'pollution is bad,' the reality here is far more extensive than it appears on the surface.
The most obvious problem with the garbage gyres is that of the wildlife that has to live with it. Hundreds of thousands of animals, from whales to waterfowl, are killed every year due to plastic pollution. The survival of over 100 species could be jeopardized by our floating landfills, including the Loggerhead Turtle and the Hawaiian Monk Seal. The creatures get caught in six-pack rings or they swallow grocery bags; they die by suffocation or drowning or poisoning. Plastic breaks down over time due to the force of waves and the effects of sunlight radiation, eventually becoming tiny pieces easily mistaken by fish for food, and toxic chemicals (absorbed and amplified by the plastic) leach into the fish’s systems. Smaller fish are eaten by bigger fish which are in turn eaten by humans, and the concentration of the toxins increases along the ride up the food chain: we are thus poisoning not only our own food supply, but ourselves.
As if the health of both marine life and our own populations weren’t enough of a catastrophe, the global economy suffers, as well. Each year over US $13 billion in damage is caused to industries such as fishing, shipping, and tourism. Another half billion dollars is spent by the US West Coast just to clean up the beaches, the cost of which can reach up to $25,000 per ton. Little wonder, then, that there has not been much progress in the attempt to clear the garbage gyres…until now.
Slat’s plan is genius in its simplicity. As martial arts uses one’s opponent’s force against them, his tactic uses the ocean’s currents to work for us. As previously noted, the gyres exist because the plastic is carried by the currents in a specific direction, bringing and keeping it all in one place. Slat proposes a massive floating barrier, allowing the debris to be swept into condensed amounts that can be easily collected, while ocean life can swim freely underneath.
A single barrier spanning 100 kilometers is estimated to clean up nearly half of the ocean’s floating trash over the course of a mere decade. And the best part? Technology is already underway to turn the collected plastic into biofuel. Cape or no cape, this young Dutchman certainly deserves his superhero title as he works to save the world.
To learn more about Slat's plan to clean up our oceans, watch the video below:
Author: Justin Haley Phillips
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The official site for Plat’s project