SAN FRANCISCO — With the Golden Gate Bridge in front of him, Boyan Slat points to the horizon and says how nice it would be to save the world. The 24-year-old leans against the railing of the tugboat, with San Francisco's skyline on his left, and the former Alcatraz prison on his right, and looks at the glittering waves. Suddenly a small yacht turns up, with three women on deck. "Boyan," they yell in the whistling wind, "Boyan, you are our hero!"
Saturday, at 1 p.m., is a special moment for Boyan Slat. And it might not be special only for him, but for all of us, for humanity. The Dutch-born inventor brings out on the water the System 001, his creation, and watches it floats into the Pacific.
The system is supposed to get rid of a gigantic conglomerate of plastic garbage that billows on the waves between California and Hawaii. This so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch is twice as big as France, as the ocean's current sends it all to one spot.
Slat has a vision. He wants to clean the oceans as fast as possible with his project, The Ocean Cleanup. He believes humanity is in danger. "The fish eat the plastic," Slat said in a conversation with Die Welt, "and we eat the fish."
Boyan Slat holding pieces of plastic debris — Photo: Official Facebook page
Many experts doubt that his purge will succeed. Nevertheless, the young man with wavy hair and a three-day beard managed to convince sponsors to give him $40 million. And apparently, Slat is also adored by the public at large.
Does all this sound familiar? A businessman who wants to save the planet. Critics who think his idea is nonsense. People who invest tons of money. Supporters cheering for the project. All this is reminiscent of the entrepreneur Boyan Slat himself calls his role model: Elon Musk.
Musk's goals include converting the automobile industry to electric, and populating Mars — his "Plan B" for humanity in case of a nuclear war or asteroids destroying the Earth. He did not set up his company SpaceX to fly only satellites for NASA into orbit, but to also one day found colonies on other planets.
He is ready to have his name written into history books.
Musk has been called a megalomaniac by some — but he could still make a lot of money. And he was highly celebrated by his fans earlier this year when he sent a red Tesla electric automobile into space thanks to his new rocket Falcon Heavy.
Boyan Slat, a fan of Musk's, congratulated him on Twitter. Now, on his way to the Golden Gate Bridge, he is ready to have his name written into history books. "Musk is very inspiring to me," confesses Slat. He's particularly intrigued by how Musk takes on things instead of brooding over them forever. "Planning is extremely important," he says, "but at some point you have to go out and do it."
System 001 is less glamorous than Musk's rockets, or his Tesla fleet: It consists of a 600-meter-long black tube that hangs on a net, invisible under the water surface. Once the construction arrives in the plastic garbage patch far out on the Pacific, the tube turns into a U-shape and rotates slowly. That's how it is supposed to catch the floating waste, all the bottles, canisters, plastic bags that were once tossed or dumped into the sea.
The Ocean Cleanup's Sept. 8 launch in San Francisco Bay — Photo: Official Facebook page
Boyan Slat's hair is fluttering in the wind. Behind him, the pipe is being pulled slowly, at about two kilometers per hour. It is accompanied by a boat of the fire brigade, which sprays water into the air. Gigantic fountains in front of the Golden Gate Bridge are launching the voyage.
Slat's marketing team has really done everything to help photographers capture great images on this day, September 8. There is even a drone taking aerial photographs. Like the first launch of Elon Musk's Falcon Heavy, Boyan Slat's System 001 is a perfectly staged moment.
And just like for Musk, Slat's system is also a test. Is the young man making empty promises, or can he actually deliver? With Musk, it depends: SpaceX is a success, but his other company, Tesla, is having big problems right now.
Tesla has not been keeping up with the production of its new model 3 electric car. In addition, Musk has been personally criticized lately, for his strange, insulting behavior and complaints, not to mention his claim that he takes strong sleeping pills.
How will Boyan Slat pull it off? In a few months we might know more. Ships will retrieve the first loads of plastic garbage trapped by System 001 and bring them ashore. If this succeeds, the waste will be sold to companies that recycle it and process it into new products. The trash will be turned into something customers will then actually use. Adidas offered to buy some of the plastic to make recycled running shoes. It could also become sunglasses similar to those worn by Slat in the San Francisco Bay on this warm morning. Recycling plastic that has been floating in the water for years is difficult. The material is half dissolved. Yet, Slat has managed to convince companies to try.
Musk and Slat are using the same technique. The two men attract businesses by offering profits. These companies then use them to achieve higher goals. The whole process ends up looking like a race against time: Musk wants to populate Mars before the Earth falls to pieces, while Slat also feels the pressure of time, because over the years the plastic in the oceans breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. The fragments sink or are whirled through the water like dandelion seeds in the air. When that happens, the plastic is extremely difficult to catch and easily enters the food chain.
The water is splashing. The waves get higher as System 001 nears the Golden Gate Bridge. The tube, about a meter thick, looks fragile between the whitecaps. Can it, we wonder, defy the forces of nature? What happens when a storm breaks out on the high seas?
Some experts say that System 001 could actually make the problem worse — because it is made out of the material Slat actually wants to eliminate: plastic. If the wind and waves shred the system, the plastic patch will grow even bigger.
The Ocean Cleanup being towed in the San Francisco Bay — Photo: Official Facebook page
"It could happen," says Boyan Slat. "But to do nothing for fear of failing would be even worse." Slat seems to think in a similar way to Musk, who can be accused of many things, but not of being afraid to take risks. Musk and Slat are taking the risk of failing in front of the whole world. "That's the way it is," says Slat. "He who hesitates does not solve any problems, and here we are dealing with a really big problem."
We will try again, we will test it until it works.
His engineers have simulated everything hundreds of times, with computers, with models in pools, and later with a semi-finished prototype in the North Sea. But now System 001 has to prove itself in the real world. How stable is it? How efficiently does it catch the plastic? Does it disturb the fish?
"If it goes wrong, we will try again, we will test it until it works."
Maybe it is a shared restlessness that drove these two men onto a similar path. Musk wanted to do a doctorate in physics, but after two days dropped out to start an internet company. Slat graduated in aerospace engineering and ended up working on The Ocean Cleanup. He always explains he has had the idea for a long time, when he was 16 years old and saw more plastic than fish during a dive off the Greek coast.
Slat may actually have an advantage over Musk. If he fails, the world will quickly forgive him. He is young, friendly, down-to-earth — compared to the often overbearing and sometimes misbehaving Musk. In addition, The Ocean Cleanup is not-for-profit, unlike SpaceX or Tesla.
System 001 finally reaches the Golden Gate Bridge. It is the gateway to the open sea. The tugboat sounds its horn, a booming good bye. The ship Boyan Slat is standing on turns back to San Francisco. He is probably happy about it. "I'm getting seasick," says Slat. "Water is not really my thing."
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