Lourens Boot is a man of the sea. He windsurfs. His houseboat consistently ranks as one of the best Airbnb rentals in the world. He spent years working offshore exploration for Shell. But in spring of 2014, the Dutchman wanted something new. Why toil in the maintenance of the old order? So he quit Shell, attended Burning Man, and dropped by an offshore energy summit in Amsterdam.

Something called the Ocean Cleanup caught his attention. Boot had first learned about the project — which aims to cleanse the ocean of trillions of pieces of plastic — on a viral Tedtalk. The video had featured a moppy-haired Dutch kid who looked like a boy band understudy. And he had a big idea.

Until that point, in 2012, the leading proposal to clean up the ocean’s trash was dispatching big ships to troll for bits of plastic — and it would take thousands of years. So the teen, Boyan Slat, said he’d come up with a low-cost solution that could do it in a matter of years. He proposed erecting a large and angled barrier and mooring it to the ocean floor in the areas of densest garbage accumulation. Then the ocean’s currents would take it from there, passively pushing the plastic into a collection zone, cleansing the zone in five years.

“The oceanic currents moving around is not an obstacle,” Slat said. “It’s a solution. Why move through the oceans if the oceans can move through you? … Let the rotating currents do their work.”

The idea was so simple, so clear, so seemingly important that the video took off, snaring 2.4 million views. “WHY ARE WE NOT FUNDING THIS?” one viewer commented. But Boot remembers feeling dubious. Funding wasn’t Slat’s only problem. Boot had spent years in the ocean. Ideas that sing on paper might not last the first storm or tidal wave. Mooring something so large and so delicate at ocean depths sinking to 4,000 meters wouldn’t be easy, Boot had thought.

This June, Ocean Cleanup’s prototype will settle into waters much closer to land, where two outside experts said it would have a much higher chance of success, off the coast of the Netherlands. The trial run, which oceanographers are closely monitoring, is led by a 21-year-old who has amassed millions in funding, collected thousands of supporters and employs dozens of staffers. Advocates call Slat a visionary. Critics describe him as naive — perhaps dangerously so. What’s not in dispute: The project’s ambition and scope. “It may be the first ocean cleanup in history,” said Nicholas Mallos, an Ocean Conservancy official.

That challenge is what attracted Boot that day in Amsterdam. “This is a really big idea,” he thought, standing before the Ocean Cleanup display. Boot said he wanted in and, days later, arrived at the project’s offices. Boot, now the Ocean Cleanup’s head of engineering, noticed a youthful man. Hair long and disheveled, he was disdainful of small talk and “a bit distant.” This was Boyan Slat. And he said he wanted to change the world.

More plastic than fish

It began years ago, in the summer of 2011, off the coast of Greece. Slat, who was 16, was on a family vacation, scuba diving. The teen’s mind had always worked like a series of gears snapping into place. He first built treehouses, then zip lines, then rockets. By the time he dove into the Grecian waters, he had broken the world record for most highly pressurized rockets launched simultaneously. Slat shot 213.

As the teen swam, he noticed plastic. The bags and floating bits seemed to even outnumber the fish. They floated up, down, at all depths. “This problem struck me as one that should be solved,” he said. “… I thought, ‘Why don’t we just clean this up?'” So the high school student hopped on his computer and started researching the issue. He discovered the severity of the problem.

We currently inhabit what some scientists called the Age of Plastic. Every characteristic that makes plastic a boon to mankind — it’s malleable, durable and cheap — makes it a bane to the ocean. Every year, humans discharge roughly 8 million metric tons into the oceans, where fish and mammals and birds mistake it for food. By the year 2050, Slat’s anecdotal observation that there were more plastic bags than fish in the ocean will actually be true.

Thanks to the ocean’s currents, propelled by wind patterns and the rotating earth, a significant portion of the ocean’s trash ends up in huge systems of rotating currents called “gyres.” There are five major ones — in the Indian Ocean, the North Atlantic, the North Pacific, the South Atlantic and the South Pacific. But even in the parts of the ocean where the trash is at its most dense, Slat said he realized cleaning up the trash with the “vessel-and-boat thing wouldn’t be very practical. The plastic moves around…. But I thought, ‘Is that really a problem? Or a solution?'”

What would become arguably history’s most ambitious ocean cleanup initiative began as a high school science project. Slat spent hundreds of hours researching it, and thought he could resell the collected plastic, making the enterprise sustainable. He was, however, still just a teenager. He couldn’t do it alone. “Finding people to work on this was really difficult,” he said. “I contacted 300 companies for support, but no one replied. It was quite depressing.”

But then organizers of a local Ted Talk approached him. They had heard about his project. Was he interested in doing a Ted Talk? He said he was.

A fools errand?

Most scientists, who by and large labor in obscurity, drop everything to talk to the press. They get their research partners to talk. They immediately furnish whatever tidbit of information a journalist may request.

Not so for Boyan Slat. People on his team aren’t immediately available for interviews. He declined to ask his parents to talk. And while Slat now has a PR team, a slick website and a media campaign that brings in tens of thousands of clicks and likes, he doesn’t enjoy yapping with scribes. He appears bored when, on the phone with a reporter, he retells the Ocean Cleanup’s origins story. It’s a tale he’s regurgitated ever since his YouTube video went viral, netting him a degree of celebrity that doesn’t seem to interest him. “If I had a choice,” Slat said, “I would be busy engineering.”

For Slat, whose youthful appearance has been both beneficial and harmful, such dedication has been crucial. The media, long a sucker for the boy-genius-saves-planet narrative, has fawned over his work. But in the early days of the project, critics also mentioned his age, implying a degree of naivete. They said the project both underestimated the power of the ocean and its own potential to harm the environment. Scientists said not only would it be difficult to anchor the barriers to the ocean’s depths, but that those barriers could inadvertently catch plankton. One activist called it a “fool’s errand.” Oceanographer Kim Martini described it as the “Wet Dream.”

And just like that, in 2013, Slat disappeared. He forwent college and, he said, ignored social obligations. (“He had a couple of days of holiday during [last] summer … and it was hell for him,” said Michael Hartnack, the project’s chief financial officer.) Slat said he declined more than 400 interview requests. Instead, he launched a crowdfunding campaign, securing $90,000 that he said he would use to answer his detractors and prove, once and for all, whether his idea could be done.

‘How invention works’

Around the time Slat published the feasibility study, which weighed in at 530 pages and was authored by 70 engineers and scientists, he took a trip to Washington. He walked through the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, stopping before the 1903 Wright Flyer, which the Wright brothers used to soar into the clouds and herald the aerial age. Standing there, Slat said he was struck by a realization.

“We are testing not to prove ourselves right, but to learn what doesn’t work,” Slat said. “The reason why the Wright brothers were successful wasn’t because they had the most resources, but because they understood how invention works. You have to iterate quickly, and you should be prepared to fail. Because things often don’t go as planned.”

Following years of study, and seven expeditions into the gyres, the project has started to solidify. Drawing on technology found in offshore rigs that have moored to depths of 2,500 meters, the team concluded that “the tools and methods that are available to the offshore engineering world can readily be applied for the realization of this project.” It also said that most of the plankton would pass underneath the barrier unharmed. Even in the worst case scenario that the plankton would be harmed, the feasibility study found that it would take “less than 7 seconds to reproduce” whatever had been lost.

Expectations have also lowered slightly. The study — which answered many of the project’s critics, but stirred fresh ones — found that a barrier that’s 100 kilometers (60 miles) long would clean up 42 percent of all of the plastic in the North Pacific gyre in 10 years.

“One of the things I’m happy to see about the work is that he is continually refining the concept,” said Nancy Wallace, director of the marine debris program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “It’s a proven concept on smaller levels,” she added. “The concept of trying to bin trash in waterways before it gets into the ocean is a proven concept.”

The project’s prototype, funded with millions raised through crowdfunding, will launch in June when the team unfurls a 100-meter (328-foot) barrier off the coast of the Netherlands. The first large trial is set for early next year, when the team will establish a two-kilometer (1.2 mile) barrier off the coast of Japan’s Tsushima Island. “Focusing on near-shore environments and focusing on trying to stop the plastic from entering the ocean in the first place” is a good place to begin, said Mallos, the Ocean Conservancy official.

By 2020, Slat says he hopes they will have collected enough information — and yes, failures — to move much deeper into the ocean, beginning the cleanup in earnest with a 100-kilometer barrier between Hawaii and California, in the heart of the North Pacific gyre.

So forgive Slat, whose project now bills itself as “largest cleanup in history,” if he doesn’t have time to talk or discuss his past in depth.

“I really hate looking back,” he said. “I think it’s useless. The only way is forward. When I look back one year ago, we were a handful of people and volunteers on a university campus. And now I’m walking into a meeting room, and am looking through the glass at 35 people we have on staff. I always hoped it would be successful, but never realized it would have become this professional or this big.”

And now, finally, he said, it’s time to see if it works.

Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately stated the depths of the ocean in kilometers rather than meters. 

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