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The Dutch boy mopping up a sea of plastic

Boyan Slat is a 20 year old copy alhambra van cleef necklace on a mission to rid the world's oceans of floating plastic. He has dedicated his teenage years to finding a way of collecting it. But can the system really work and is there any point when so much new plastic waste is still flowing into the sea every day?

"I don't understand why 'obsessive' has a negative connotation, I'm an obsessive and I like it," says Boyan Slat. "I get an idea and I stick to it."

This idea came to him at the age of 16, in the summer of 2011, when diving in Greece. "I saw more plastic bags than fish," says Slat. He was shocked, and even more shocked that there was no apparent solution. "Everyone said to me: 'Oh there's nothing you can do about plastic once it gets into the oceans,' and I wondered whether that was true."

Over the last 30 to 40 years, millions of tonnes of plastic have entered the oceans. Global production of plastic now stands at 288 million tonnes per year, of which 10% ends up in the ocean in time. Most of that 80% comes from land based sources. Litter gets swept into drains, and ends up in rivers so that plastic straw or cup lid you dropped, the cigarette butt you threw on the road they could all end up in the sea.

The plastic is carried by currents and congregates in five revolving water systems, called gyres, in the major oceans, the most infamous being the huge Pacific Garbage Patch, half way between Hawaii and California.

Although the concentration of plastic in these areas is high it's sometimes described as a plastic soup it's still spread out over an area twice the size of Texas. What's more, the plastic does not stay in one spot, it rotates. These factors make a clean up incredibly challenging.

"Most people have this image of an island of trash that you can almost walk on, but that's not what it's like," says Slat. "It stretches for millions of square kilometres if you went there to try and clean up by ship it would take thousands of years." Not only that, it would be very costly in terms of both money and energy, and fish would be accidentally caught in the nets.

Slat had always enjoyed working out solutions to puzzles, and while pondering this one, it came to him rather than chase plastic, why not harness the currents and wait for it to come to you?

At school, Slat developed his idea further as part of a science project. An array of floating barriers, anchored to the sea bed, would first catch and concentrate the floating debris. The plastic would move along the barriers towards a platform, where it could then be efficiently extracted. The ocean current would pass underneath the barriers, taking all buoyant sea life with it. There would be no emissions, and no nets for marine life to get entangled in. The collected ocean plastic would be recycled and made into products or oil.

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Media captionComputer animation of Boyan Slat's plastic catching system

The high school science project was awarded Best Technical Design at Delft University of Technology. For most teenagers, it would probably have ended there, but Slat was different. He had been interested in engineering from a very young age. "First I built tree houses, then zip wires, then it evolved towards bigger things," he says. "By the time I was 13, I was very interested in rocketry." This led him to set a Guinness World Record for the most water rockets launched at the same time: 213, from a sports field in his native Delft. "The experience taught me how to get people crazy enough to do things you want, and how to approach sponsors." Useful skills, as it turned out.

When Slat began studying aerospace engineering at Delft University, the idea of cleaning up the oceans just wouldn't let him go he says it niggled at him like "an asymmetrically positioned label" on a pair of boxer shorts. He set up a foundation, The Ocean Cleanup, and explained his concept in a TedX Talk: How the Oceans can Clean Themselves. Then, six months into his course, he made the decision to pause both university and social life to try make it a reality.

His entire budget consisted of 200 euros (160) of saved up pocket money, so he spent a few desolate months trying to get sponsorship. "It was so disheartening, because no one was interested," he says. "I remember one day contacting 300 companies for sponsorship only one replied, and that, too, resulted in a dead end."

But then something happened. On 26 March 2013, months after it had gone online, Slat's TedX talk went viral. "It was unbelievable," he says. "Suddenly we got hundreds of thousands of people clicking on our site every day. I received about 1,500 emails per day in my personal mailbox from people volunteering to help." He set up a crowd funding platform that made $80,000 in 15 days.

Slat still doesn't know what made his idea take off like that, but he describes it as a great relief. "A year ago I wasn't sure it would succeed," he says. "But considering the size of the problem it was important to at least try."

The amount of plastic being discarded into the marine environment is such that we could eventually see an ocean where the amount of plastics is roughly one third the total biomass of fish 1lb of plastic for every 2lbs of fish, according to Nicholas Mallos from Ocean Conservancy, which organises coastal clean ups.

According to the UN Environment Programme there are on average 13,000 pieces of floating plastic per square kilometre of ocean but that goes up to millions of pieces in the gyres. Many of these particles end up being accidentally ingested by marine animals, which can die of starvation because of the plastic filling their stomachs.

Albatrosses are particularly vulnerable because they feed on the eggs of flying fish, which are attached to floating objects now most likely a piece of plastic. Dr Jan Andries van Franeker from the Institute for Marine Resources and Ecosystem Studies (IMARES) in the Netherlands has some of these objects in a pot in his office: a toothbrush, cigarette lighters, floaters from fish nets, a golf ball, a tampon applicator all found in albatross chick's carcasses. "The plastics may not directly kill the bird, but it will have less energy reserves and it will have a higher load of chemicals so if things get problematic at sea, or if you have to raise a chick, those are the ones that die first," he told the BBC.

The amount of industrial plastic pellets van Franeker finds in the birds has halved since the 1980s it seems the industry has at least partially cleaned up its act. "It's an economic loss if the factory loses raw product," he says. "Unfortunately with consumer plastic, there is little profit in taking back waste. It doesn't cost us anything to throw it away."

But the cost to us could be very high, in the long term.

Plastics can act as a sponge and soak up chemicals in the water. "There are a lot of pollutants in the oceans now, things like DDT," Nancy Wallace, director of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Debris Program, told the BBC. "Those chemicals adsorb on fake van cleef diamond necklace to the plastic and we know birds and fish are eating those pieces of plastic so the question is, how does that transfer up the food chain and what is the impact?"

Find out more

Boyan Slat spoke to Outlook, BBC World Service Listen via the iPlayer

Jan Andries van Franeker and Nancy Wallace spoke to Shared Planet, BBC Radio 4 Listen via the iPlayer

Professor Richard Thompson and Dr Kerry Howell spoke to Costing the Earth, BBC Radio 4 Listen via the iPlayer

It is a grave situation so when Slat came along with a seemingly simple solution, he began making headlines across the world. Could a teenager save the world's oceans? His enthusiasm fired up millions of people, but along with the offers of help and donations, came criticism. It wouldn't work, some said. Others argued that it would be better to collect litter from beaches, where it gets deposited by waves.

When people say something is impossible I like to prove them wrongBoyan Slat, Marine debris entrepreneur

"It's in my nature that when people say something is impossible I like to prove them wrong," Slat says. Having caught the world's attention, the first thing he did was to disappear from sight. He needed scientific evidence to back up his theory and answer his critics.

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