Go to any beach, anywhere in the world and you will find plastic washed up on shore. That is just what has washed up, exponentially more is out in the seafloating around. The worlds oceans are full of plastic and it is a very big problem that grows worse every day.
I read Ed Stafford´s book ¨Naked and Marooned¨ last year in which he spends 60 days alone on a desert island with no clothes, no tools, nothing apart from some filming equipment. Drinking water was an immediate and lasting problem for him as it would be for anyone, not least because you cannot store water to drink later if you do have something to store it in. You cannot purify it if you do not have something to put it in and collecting it, even drinking it with no cup or bottle can sometimes be impossible.
In the middle of nowhere, far from civilisation, somewhere in the Pacific, none of this was a problem because the idyllic beach with it´s coconut palms and white sand was absolutely littered with plastic refuse that had washed up from all sorts of distant places. He found hundreds of plastic bottles complete with lid´s, a straw, flip flops, plastic rope, a toothbrush, a comb and even a Fijian rugby ball called Gilbert.
This is a familiar story all over the world, polystyrene blocks and plastic everywhere. The trouble is, plastic is cheap to make so virtually every company on earth uses it as packaging material. In the UK alone, about 38.5 Million plastic bottles are discarded each day. Every day. The scale of the volume of plastic waste is all but impossible to measure due to it´s immense size but we do not need to look far to see it´s effects on nature.
The trouble with plastic is that it never degrades fully, it is not bio-degradable. There are many different types of plastics with different characteristics but generally speaking a plastic bottle can take about 450 years to degrade full in a forested environment. It is not known how long it takes in the sea but it is known that although after many years, the plastic bottle may appear to break down and decompose, it only ever breaks down as far as it´s component form which is a tiny pellet or grain.
These pellets or grains happen to look very similar to the food that fish eat and fish are not the sharpest tools in the box so they eat it whenever they see it. These fish then have plastic inside them and are consumed by other fish and sea bird. The sea birds then have plastic in them too and then the thing that eats them has too and all of the other health complications that this brings.
Many animals are hurt and killed by plastic litter on the surface but the real, long lasting problem is plastic in the food chain.
It has become such an enormous and hugely important problem that must be solved that in recent years, many European countries have switched to a 60% recycling target, plastic carrier bags cannot be given away for free and various other things are being looked at. All of this is just putting a plaster over the real problem which is companies using the stuff in the first place.
Anyway, A bright young Dutch man called Boyan Slat had a think about this while he should have been studying for his Aerospace Engineering degree and noticed that most, about 50% of the plastic was floating in the top 6 inches or so of the sea. He then figured out a clever system, cost effective and scalable system to scrape the stuff out of the water.
The first large scale clean up operation begins in the Pacific in 2018 (this year) with a 1200 Nautical mile shakedown, once complete in 2020 there will be a massive upscale of the system and deployment into the other oceans of the world.
They estimate that they can clear 70% of the plastic in the oceans using this system. Take a look at the website for an idea of how it works.
Usually at this stage of the ¨We are saving the world pitch¨ comes the request for a donation or some outrageous monthly subscription that you know full well will be spent on nothing but travel expenses and stationary (or worse). Not this project, they don´t want your charity because he actually figured out how to make money from this as well. Not only has he worked out how to massively reduce this problem to a level that we can tolerate and deal with, he is able to make his living out of it and generate jobs for people too. This is inspiring.
Oh and Boyan Slat was 18 when he figured all of this out and once he realised that this is what he wants to do he dropped out of his aerospace engineering degree.
The the 18 year old university drop out may well have saved us all. Imagine if he had stayed at school and not bothered with this.
When I was growing up, like almost everyone else, I associated doing passionate things for the greater good with doing it for free. You don´t get paid for doing the right thing. Well, that paradigm seems to have shifted and now after decades of stagnation and a failure by government and corporate charity organisations to deal with the problem, this guy is dealing with it and getting rich in the process.
I would encourage anyone with a good idea that they are passionate about to put some real thought into how they could make their living from that instead of doing it in their spare time for nothing.
If the world was run by people who are passionate about their area of expertise then imagine how the rate of human progress could leap forward.
Academia has it´s uses but it should not be viewed as the be all and end all, a university degree in anything other than hard sciences is not a very useful thing to have and you should be wary of any future employer that demands that you have one. Practical experience and good ideas are much more valuable and if you cant find a job in it then create your own job by starting your own company.
Some people actually commit suicide when they do not meet others expectations in academia, such is the pressure put upon us by society, a great many more become depressed or anxious. I would love to be able to tell all of those people that it´s really not that big of a deal and it does not matter if you fail you exams, what matters, what really matters is that you identify what you are passionate about and then figure out how to make a career out of that.
Unrelated to the main article but I am receiving requests from people for information about training with me in expedition and bushcraft skills – I am not currently offering a program of courses but am working with individuals on a one to one or one to two or three basis. If you would like to do this too then you can contact me to make an application here: