How a Teenager's Invention Might Save the World's Oceans

This fix could help prevent harmful trash buildup in oceans worldwide.

June 22, 2015
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While most of us try to do our part by tossing our empty water bottles into the recycling bin instead of the trash, 20-year-old Boyan Slat is about to revolutionize the way trash accumulates in our planet's ocean. He first proposed his device when he was 17 years old, and it involves a massive, boomerang-looking structure that would float in the ocean and work with the currents to collect trash.

The Holland native's TED Talk has been viewed more than 2 million times, and his company, The Ocean Cleanup, has already raised more than $2 million from its crowd-funding campaign. But before his device can be deployed—or even built—Slat is first performing extensive research to determine just how much garbage is scattered in our oceans.

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More: 7 Freaky Facts About Plastic in Our Oceans

Research shows that around 8 million tons of plastic enters oceans each year. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), beach cleanups cost the U.S. about $500 million every year. Trash in our ocean is not only unsightly and unsanitary, but it also leaches chemicals linked to cancer and reproductive problems, which then accumulate in the food chain. 

Slat recommends limiting your use of disposable plastic products, such as water bottles and plastic bags, which can end up in the ocean. (Instead, use these plastic-free food and drink storage solutions.) When going to the beach, be sure to clean up after yourself, but also keep an eye out while you're there so none of your trash blows into the water. If you're a pet owner, be careful not to flush cat litter, which contains pathogens that can harm ocean life. Be sure not to purchase or support the sale of products that use animal or plant material that are critical to ocean health, such as those made with coral, tortoise-shell, or shark. 

In actor and marine activist Ted Danson's book, Oceana, surfer Laird Hamilton shares his thoughts about plastics in our oceans. "There's stuff that's worse than what you see—disintegrating plastics and a whole toxic stew of chemicals with names you can't pronounce," he says. "Everybody thinks the most important part of surfing is some technical move you make on the board. Wrong. The most important part of surfing is knowing the ocean, respecting the ocean. What we've been given is precious. It's majestic in its smallest details and its largest manifestations."