Monday, November 29, 2021

An incredible optimist is trying to protect the oceans by turning old boats into clean-up machines

As the CEO of New York-based nonprofit the Ocean Cleanup, Boyan Slat has spent the past decade dedicated to “becoming the world’s largest non-government organization defending the oceans.” He and a team of 350 people work full-time out of a converted former aviation hangar in Long Island. He says he and his team of volunteers have so far worked together on more than 400 cleanup projects around the world to clean up the world’s vast but overfished oceans.

A number of impressive feats have occurred while he’s been there. A recent Ocean Cleanup project in the Pacific Ocean pulled millions of gallons of filth out of the North Pacific Current, and, for the first time, anyone in a boat could watch the clean-up from the platform at sea. “One of the scientists on board told me that her jaw was literally dropped,” he says. “I had never seen the ocean so much alive and alive to enjoy.”

In June Slat filed a patent application for a vessel with cutting-edge robots and technologies meant to clean fish waste off the world’s largest fishing boats. His ultimate goal is to enable fishermen to take back sea life that is often used for biofuel or fillet it for processing. “I want to convince fishermen who could take the fish back and use it for their livelihood,” he says. “Imagine if they took it back and it became something amazing instead of something they throw away in about every single year.”

Slat has an idea that should captivate the attention of anyone obsessed with the water. “It’s an ocean that almost every single human being has been in,” he says. “You see people coming to talk about [sustainability] and the oceans, and I am so grateful that people care about the ocean, but in our own little aquarium, every single person knows that we’re not doing good. And that’s what I wish we could turn into something beautiful.” Slat wants us to come together and set a course for sustainability in the oceans. “It doesn’t have to be a huge technological innovation,” he says. “There are tremendous things we can do as humans.”

Slat, 26, is in his fifth year as the leader of the Ocean Cleanup and the only one on the team with an undergraduate degree. (He holds a degree in engineering.) “People find it easier to get on board and say, ‘OK, we’re here because we care,’ than it is for someone new who has not taken ownership and is not already passionate about the ocean,” he says. “There are about a thousand messages that you have to learn to put together, and that’s not hard for me. But sometimes my team feels like they have to put on the effort and be passionate.”

Of course, optimism about the ocean’s future is always necessary. It’s even harder in times of severe drought, heat waves, rising sea levels, and other disasters, he says. “It’s the perfect storm,” he says. “Any event is going to have an impact on the ocean, and all events have an impact because of the ocean itself.”

He still has a lot of hope for his organization. “I have a lot of great optimism for the future of the oceans,” he says. “Not only because I work in an organization that is focused on it, but because of the people who want to help.”

Read more stories in the series.

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