Problem: We've trashed our oceans. Solution: Boyan Slat.
At 17, Slat had an idea, one that would permeate his future: "Why don't we just clean it up?"
It came to him during a family vacation, while he was scuba diving in Greece. The amount of flotsam in the water shocked him—he saw more plastic bags than fish.
When he got home to Delft, in the Netherlands, he began researching and was astounded by the magnitude of the problem: Not only that there are at least five trillion pieces of plastic in the oceans, killing millions of animals per year across at least 267 species, but also that most scientists and activists are convinced that cleaning the oceans is impossible.
He heard about meager plans to round up plastic pollution with vessels and nets. "I remember thinking, 'Why move through the oceans when the oceans can move through you?' I thought to create an artificial coastline in the middle of a gyre that would passively concentrate the plastic so it could be extracted."
After high school, Slat went to Delft's University of Technology to study aerospace engineering ("I always loved making things, inventing things," he says) but grew increasingly obsessed with his idea of how to clean the oceans, so he dropped out of college to pursue it.
"No one else was doing it or thought it possible to do," he says. "Thinking that it should be possible probably made me more qualified to do so than the experts who said it was mission impossible." Though he didn't—and still doesn't—have a college degree, he knew he needed to be the one to see the idea through.
Soon he was back in Greece, this time with a specially designed trawl in tow—he didn't pack any clothes for the trip so that he could stuff the trawl into his luggage instead—to gather evidence that his idea would work.
In October of 2012, he gave a TEDx talk called "How the Oceans Can Clean Themselves," detailing his plan. After that, Slat tried to collect money for the project but couldn't drum up much interest. Months went by, and still he struggled to find supporters. Then, in March of 2013, his talk inexplicably went viral—at press time, his video has more than 2.5 million views. Suddenly, funding started pouring in, and soon Slat had more than $2 million in hand.
The major funders of his non-profit, which he named the Ocean Cleanup, include the Dutch government, a number of universities from around the world, and a handful of big technology companies including Microsoft, Salesforce, and Dropbox.
Slat estimates that it'll cost several hundred million dollars—and take years—to get the trash out of the ocean. He also predicts that, if the plastic that's collected is sold to recyclers, it would go for more than $500 million. "This is more than the plan would cost to execute," he points out during his TEDx talk, pausing for effect. "In other words, it's profitable."
Slat, who doesn't say more than he needs to, is shaggy-haired, with intense eyes, a windswept surfer look, and an elegant accent—he seems to belong on a preteen girl's bedroom poster. In reality, though, he doesn't have much in the way of a social life, or any hobbies to speak of. He is single-mindedly focused on the prize: clean oceans for Earth.
In the meantime, his passion and drive have netted him a long list of honors, including being the youngest-ever recipient of the United Nation's highest environmental award.
Early on, though, he knew he couldn't clean something he didn't know the size of, so he enlisted university professors to do the math. It turns out that, by 2020, there will be 7.25 million tons of extractible plastic in the oceans, most of it floating relatively close to the surface.
Slat scaled his set-up accordingly; the infrastructure for his solution will be moored deeper than anything humans have ever moored before. It'll be farther from land than any oil rig, and many times longer than any other floating operation.
His "artificial coastline" concept involves installing huge, V-shaped arrays to passively concentrate debris, using the ocean's own rotational currents to corral the trash. Animals won't get caught in his screens, Slat says, since they can swim under them. Even plankton will be spared, as Slat plans to use centrifugal force to separate the tiny creatures from the microplastics, and return the organisms to the open water.
Slat's life philosophy? "Iterative testing," he says. "Using evolutionary principles to create something that works." And test he does. He tests water properties in swimming pools, assigns artists to make renderings, conducts expeditions by air and sea. "We test fast and often," his website says, "not to prove ourselves right, but to look for the things that don't yet work as planned."
His proudest accomplishment so far, he says, is his 328-foot-long North Sea Prototype, which he deployed last year off the Netherlands, anchoring it with cables nearly three miles long. It's still being tested, but if it works—and it looks like it might—a more extensive pilot system will be set up in waters in the Pacific later this year.
His efforts have been met with resistance and criticism—a lot of it. Experts older than him have called the Ocean Cleanup "a fool's errand," "a misinterpretation of oceanography," "naive," and "likely to fail."
When asked whether he feels people doubt him more because he's young, Slat says, "Yes, but I never felt youth to be a disadvantage. With age often comes prior knowledge, which may be limiting. Because I had no clue of all the reservations that could be brought up against my idea, I went ahead and started working on it. I may not have done so if I had been older."
He's in good company. Each of Slat's heroes—Nikola Tesla, the Wright brothers, Elon Musk—faced negativity and stared down their doubters. History speaks for itself.
Before his own time is up, Slat says, "I hope to have shown that we can reverse environmental damages through technological advances." And when people say it can't be done, he has a plainspoken response: "Please. Don't tell me we can't clean this up together."
Explore the complete list of this year's 30 top thinkers under 30 here.