A 19-Year-Old Invented a Machine That Could Solve One of Our Planet’s Biggest Problems

A 19-Year-Old Invented a Machine That Could Solve One of Our Planet’s Biggest Problems

The news: Boyan Slat, a 19-year-old from the Netherlands, designed a floating structure that could mop up 70,000 metric tons of plastic — the weight of more than 300 Statues of Liberty — from the northern Pacific Ocean. Talk about being a boy genius. 

The problem he's solving: We're addicted to plastic, and it's costing us. Humans produce about 300 million tons of plastic each year, enough to spawn a new type of permanent geologic rock. But most of it doesn't stick around on land — it ends up in the ocean.

In the Pacific, there's enough plastic junk to form an island the size of Texas. And our used plastic bags and bottles don't just float. When seabirds mistake bits of the waste for food they choke and die; they also become entangled in nets of discarded plastic packaging.

Over time, as plastic breaks down into smaller pieces called microplastics, it becomes lethal to fish and other marine mammals by blocking up their digestive systems.

The solution: A zig-zagging wall of solid floating barriers linked by manta-ray-shaped collection platforms catch and concentrate the ocean's trash. As the trash floats, it rides ocean currents and winds toward the barriers — no additional power needed.

Slat is still working on a practical means of converting the plastic pieces into other materials later. By recycling all the materials he collects, Slat could recoup some of the costs of building and maintaining his device.

Boyan Slat. Image Credit (all): The Ocean Cleanup

That might come in handy, considering the project's sticker price of $43 million per year. Slat's team of scientists and engineers says the hefty cost is still more than 30 times cheaper than conventional cleanup methods. His organization, The Ocean Cleanup, has begun crowdsourcing a chunk of the funds online.

Why it matters: Slat knows turning his idea into reality will be no small feat. And even if a cleanup project of this magnitude does happen, we must begin to address the amount of waste we generate in the first place, Slat said.

"Although a cleanup will have a profound effect," Slat said in a press release, "It is just part of the solution."