Positive Leadership

Leading an ocean clean-up (with Boyan Slat)

August 02, 2023 Jean-Philippe Courtois Season 6 Episode 7
Leading an ocean clean-up (with Boyan Slat)
Positive Leadership
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Positive Leadership
Leading an ocean clean-up (with Boyan Slat)
Aug 02, 2023 Season 6 Episode 7
Jean-Philippe Courtois

Humans create more than 400 million metric tons of plastic every year. Around a million tons of that plastic ends up in the ocean.

On this week’s episode, JP speaks to Boyan Slat, CEO and founder of The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit foundation on a mission to remove 90% of it by 2040. Listen now.

Subscribe now to JP's free monthly newsletter "Positive Leadership and You" on LinkedIn to transform your positive impact today: https://www.linkedin.com/newsletters/positive-leadership-you-6970390170017669121/

Show Notes Transcript

Humans create more than 400 million metric tons of plastic every year. Around a million tons of that plastic ends up in the ocean.

On this week’s episode, JP speaks to Boyan Slat, CEO and founder of The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit foundation on a mission to remove 90% of it by 2040. Listen now.

Subscribe now to JP's free monthly newsletter "Positive Leadership and You" on LinkedIn to transform your positive impact today: https://www.linkedin.com/newsletters/positive-leadership-you-6970390170017669121/

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS: Welcome to another edition of Positive Leadership, the podcast that helps you grow as an individual, a leader and ultimately as a global citizen. Humans create more than 400 million metric tons of plastic every year. Around a million tons of that plastic ends up in the ocean. Swirling ocean currents gather of some of it into huge garbage patches, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch which is three times the size of my country, France. Roughly 800 species are impacted by plastic pollution in the ocean. And the economic impact is estimated at being up to 19 billion US dollars per year. 

BOYAN SLAT:  I think for a few billion dollars we can solve all the plastic emissions and the legacy in the oceans, so compared to an issue like climate that’s many orders of magnitude more costly to do. So, if we can keep things simple I think that would be helpful. 

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:Boyen Slat, my guest today, is a Dutch inventor, an entrepreneur passionate about creating mega projects to address planetary problems. In 2013, at just 18 years old, he dropped out of university to found the Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit organization dedicated to developing advanced technologies to rid the world’s oceans of plastic. I was so excited to have Boyan on the podcast to find out how close he’s gone to achieving that incredible goal. And how he’s mobilized so many people to get behind his cause. The result is a fascinating listen. I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did. There’s a lot of practical take-home advice that you can build into your own leadership practice. Make sure you stay with us until the very end. 

So Boyen, it’s been I think ten years since your launch, and this year could prove to be momentous. You’re only weeks away from launching the largest iteration of your ocean cleaning system,  System 3. So how is that going, and are you still on track with that?

BOYAN SLAT:Yeah, it’s been ten years indeed since we started the Ocean Cleanup. Getting old, it’s like —


BOYAN SLAT:— things like that. No, it seems like this year it’s essentially the year that things are coming together. Of course the first few years it was all about doing the research, understanding the problem. Once we had that we started going to the prototyping, developing the technology, and two years ago we came to the point that we actually had technologies that worked. So we had systems in rivers to catch plastic before it flowed into the oceans, we had a system in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch collecting plastic at a large scale. But having something that works is not the same as being ready for scale-up and being able to roll this out around the world. So there’s this maturation phase that we’re in right now to optimize the technology, reduce the costs and indeed now… You know, on rivers it’s about completing those first 20 rivers, the first 20 projects that we have to assure that they work pretty smoothly, that we don’t lose any plastic, that they are financially self-sustaining as well. And then in the ocean, in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch where you have this legacy pollution, the plastic that does not go away by itself anymore, there we are launching System 3 this summer which is the first full-scale ocean cleanup system. And the thing is, the bigger you go the more effective you can be in you cleanup. So size really does matter for ocean cleanup systems. So it’s all about making it big; we’re now at about 1800 meters, we want to go to two and a half kilometres in length, so… Already it’s the longest thing ever to pull over the ocean. And when we get there, we’ll be cleaning up a football field of ocean every five seconds approximately, so that’s how big this is. So yes, things are kind of coming together this summer for sure. 

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:Pretty amazing to see what has been accomplished in ten years. But could you unpack a little bit, actually, what it looks like, System 1, and then going from System 1 to System 2, just to really unpack the underlying technology. What have been the key [PH:] blockers, the key inside discovery. Because I know 


you had some ups and downs. It was not like an easy journey at all. So can you explain again to our listeners what does the technology achieve and what was again the main breakthrough for you that you’ve been able to achieve the past 10 years?

BOYAN SLAT: There is no manual on how to build an ocean cleanup system, right? So, it’s a completely new category of technology that we had to start from scratch on and the way I’d like to think about concepting and innovation is like a landscape of hills and mountains. And by optimizing, by developing you’re essentially climbing up a hill, but when you’re on that hill you don’t know whether you’re on the hill of an Appalachian mountain or on Mount Everest, right? So sometimes you end up with this [PH:] low co optimum and you have to decide again Am I still going to try and optimize my current hill, am I keep going to climb that hill that I’m on or am I going to —


BOYAN SLAT: — start from scratch, yeah, and go back to the drawing board. So we had a few of those moments through our history. Initially, the idea was to have this passive system because we thought we can use the force of nature to do this, that would be great. It would save money, save time. So we had this long floating barrier, 2018 we launched that from San Francisco to the patch. We deployed it and the first issue we had was that we weren’t collecting plastic, which of course was pretty important for an ocean cleaning system… 


BOYAN SLAT: And then secondly a few months later we had a structural failure of the system due to fatigue, and yeah, that forced us quite dramatically to go back to the drawing board. So that experiment… that cost us millions of dollars, you know, a year and a half of development. Yeah, it was just very painful to struggle to get everyone and everything back to land safely. Of course the media was all over it: “See, I told you so!” The experts claimed that it was never going to work and indeed it failed. So that was difficult but fortunately we still had just enough money in the bank for one more try. And then we went back out there, deployed again, this time we did manage to get it to work, but then still what we found was that the system, even though it was collecting plastic, it wasn’t doing it at the scale we would need to be able to clean up the whole patch. You know, we’re not in the business to clean up a bit of plastic, we’re here to solve the problem. So then again we decided to jump to another —


BOYAN SLAT: — foot of another mountain. And then, yeah, that third time was a charm, really, when we decided to go active, to actually pull the system forward, which had two main advantages. First the amount of service area that you cover is much greater so you can collect more plastic, but secondly you can steer the cleanup system to where you want to be. And that was I think the main breakthrough there, that we discovered that the patch is not homogeneous, so you have these hotspots where there is a way higher concentration of plastic. So I would say our current cleanup approach, this merging of both hardware and software, is about having a really big system and making that work, but at the same time it’s about really having this targeted approach, having these computer models that we run all the time, to actually run these forecasts: in the next two days you have to be at these coordinates, to collect your plastic. 

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:Listening to Boyan talk about the way he’s developed and refined his approach at the time, how he’s stayed focused on achieving his goal, evolving himself and his team as he went through those mountains and valleys, is truly inspiring. And it says a lot about the strength of his mindset. Ever since he was a child, Boyan loved inventing and making things like treehouses and zip lines with his friends. As he got older, he started working on other projects like home-made rockets, yes, and he began tinkering with computers. He even broke a Guinness World Record at age 14 when he launched 213 water rockets, the most ever set off at one time. 

So Boyan, you said before that you’ve always been fascinated by working out how to do things that other people think are impossible. So can you tell me about where this passion for tackling things, fixing things, comes from? Is it from your parents?

BOYAN SLAT: Sure. I think it’s probably more genetic than nurture. They are currently… I love them but they’re not


scientists, they’re not engineers. So, my father is I would say is very creative, he’s an artist, he’s a painter, so maybe to me solving problems it’s an art form as well, it’s very much a creative endeavour. But, I dont’ know. Recently I found a VHS tape of some early recordings of my life when I was one or two, and there’s this video of me just playing with the buttons of a washing machine and my dad says “Oh, he’ll be very technical in the future.” That’s quite prophetic I would say. Already when I was two years old I wanted to build my own chair, so there was a family member who was a carpenter got me some materials and I built my own chair.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:Two years old. Two years old.


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:Just built a chair.

BOYAN SLAT: It wasn’t very good looking, but it was functional. And then I got into building computers, got into building explosives probably, when I was eight or nine, so full of chemistry and doing experiments in that avenue. Yeah, and then water rockets became my obsession, these pressurized things that you could shoot up into the air and thought “OK, how far can I take this?” so I thought I could try and set a Guinness World Record to launch as many of them as possible at the same time. I suspect that was my first project that was bigger than just one person; I had to mobilize 300 people to launch one of those things at the same time. I had companies involved for sponsorship, there was media that was covering this thing. So my first real project and indeed I set the record then. It wasn’t very useful but it kept me busy as a child, for sure.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:And obviously it showed your entrepreneurship mindset already, I mean you were 14 years old basically, mobilizing people, I mean getting money, getting support, and actually making it work as well, of course.

BOYAN SLAT: Yeah, to me having an idea and then seeing that become reality, there’s no better feeling in the world than that. So for me that is what keeps me going through all the unscheduled learning opportunities that we’ve come across over the years.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:That’s what we call in the podcast of course an incredible growth mindset, right? Always having the appetite to learn new things and I’m sure you keep doing the same. So the problem of plastic pollution, we know is enormous and the longer the plastic stays in the ocean the harder it is to clean up, as it breaks down into micro plastic particles. And I understand of course, it has become legendary now, that you first became aware of it when you went on a diving holiday right in Greece, in the blue waters of Greece, when you were 16. So can you tell us more about that experience and how it triggered your own personal fascination, if that was actually the key moment to create your vocation, to clean up the ocean. 

BOYAN SLAT:Yes, indeed. Scuba diving in Greece, I was about to get my license and I was hoping to see all these beautiful things under water, and instead I looked around me and saw more plastic bags than fish. And I was quite disappointed by that, but rather than sitting around and feeling sad about it, my engineering mind just quickly went to “OK, how do we solve this? How do we fix this?” And, yeah, that provided me the opportunity to combine this passion I had for technology with some actually useful cause. 

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:That’s a very special moment, I’m sure, in your life but you might have gone as well through some other moments of truth that shaped you, right, as an individual and as a leader, as a change-maker and helping you shape your mission as well. So was there another moment where you decided “OK… this is —” I know this is the mission of your life but at least for the last ten years, I guess it’s been your entire life dedicated to that, right, isn’t it? 

BOYAN SLAT: Oh, yeah. No time for anything else. So I suppose if you look for some concrete pivotal moments, I would say the moment that I dropped out of university was I think quite an important moment when this idea was stuck in my head, I couldn’t stop thinking about it…

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:It was an obsession.

BOYAN SLAT: Yeah. Then I came to the moment that I realized, OK if I really want to give this a try and I want to give this any probability of success I should probably dedicate all of my time to this. 

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:And your parents were supportive of that, Boyan, or they were shocked or they said “No, that’s good my son. Let’s do this”?


BOYAN SLAT: So the one thing I’m incredibly thankful of, especially for my mom because I grew up with her, my parents divorced at a very young age, is that she’s always given me the encouragement and the space to follow my curiosity and my passion. So my childhood was just this long chain of obsessions, and whenever I had a new obsession she would buy me books, the books that I was looking for to understand these things. I was always allowed to use the living room as my workshop, my lab. Like when I told her I was contemplating to drop out, she asked me “OK, have you thought about this? Are you sure?”, and I’d say “Yeah, I think the cost-benefit analysis makes sense.” So she said “Sure, OK. Go ahead.”

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:Having the backing and support of his mom when he was thinking of dropping out of university was critical for Boyan. But it’s something that Bill Drayton talks about extensively in his episode, how important it is to encourage young people in their passions. To give them space to forge their own entrepreneurial paths, and how when you do that it can go on to do the most extraordinary things.

A couple of months before he decided to drop out of university, Boyan gave the Tedx talk in which he described the initial concept of cleaning the oceans. At the time he had something like $300 saved up to launch a project. He needed lots more money to get it off the ground, but initially there was not much attention. Then in April, 2013, the video got picked up by a number of news blogs and went viral. Within a few weeks, it had been watched more than a million times. Boyan found himself suddenly in the spotlight: a very big spotlight. 

BOYAN SLAT: The email form on the website was still linked to my personal mail account, so I had to go through 500 emails a day from people who said “I want to help, how can I help?” And then people were saying “You should get your ass on Kickstarter right now” so that was friendly advice that I then followed to start this first part of the campaign and raise the first few million dollars to get started. So those weeks were definitely overwhelming, but I think without that video having gone viral we wouldn’t be here to talk to each other today. 

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:No, that’s another amazing moment that we have witnessed as well with some of the change-makers where one moment when they start communicating their mission, their passion, their commitment to the cause, that can drive a lot of traction, gaining a lot of excitement, a lot of support, which obviously was one of those moments for you.

So you said before that the garbage patches in the ocean can seem like an abstract problem. But when you see the amount of plastic coming back on the ships, I guess it makes it very real, right? So what was that like for you for the first time when that happened? I don’t know if it was System 1 or System 2, maybe, when you could collect some garbage finally, you said “Wow! I love that garbage!”  

BOYAN SLAT: Yeah, that was a definitely System 2. System 1 we were happy with single pieces of plastic. When we’d see a few pieces of plastic in the system: “I guess this is promising.” A lot was at stake with that system, System 2, where it really had to work. If it wouldn’t have worked…

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:It would have been over.

BOYAN SLAT: I think it would have been over, honestly. So… But it did, and I remember this vividly one morning I woke up and I saw I’d had all these missed phone calls and text messages, and I opened up my phone and there I saw it. I saw this photo, this mountain of plastic on the deck and I’d never been happier in my life than in that moment, for sure.


BOYAN SLAT: That was a relief. 

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:Have you kept one of those pieces of garbage as kind of a trophy in your place? This is the first piece of plastic I got?


JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:Do you have that? Yeah, you do? OK!

BOYAN SLAT: I think one day we’ll open up some kind of museum.


BOYAN SLAT: Once the garbage patch is gone, we’ll need some kind of memory of it. It’s not just the first plastic but also the objects that you pull out are sometimes extremely weird. We’ve seen toys, we’ve seen mannequins. You see all sorts of languages. We occasionally find Wilson volleyballs, like in the movie Cast Away

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:Yes, I remember that.


BOYAN SLAT: It’s fun, it’s like modern day archaeology out there. 

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:It’s a civilization memory, basically, right, on the sea. 

BOYAN SLAT: Exactly, exactly. All the way to the 1960s, to the early 20th century. 

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:In a film I saw about you, there’s a shot of an exercise you do with your team. You show them a video of an autopsy on, I think, four turtles with plastic in their bodies. And I must say the images were pretty hard to watch. I could see the reactions of your team, right, their body language and their faces when they heard the motivating message also after the video. You’re not just cleaning up, you’re actually saving lives. So aligning your team with a message I think was an incredible motivation, for sure, and to keep hitting home those goal-oriented messages to basically reestablish the purpose of your mission all the time with your team. This is something I talked a lot about with some of my guests, including lately actually Ranjay Gulati: purpose beyond just a statement. And embedding it into teams is actually the real work you have to do as a leader. So is the purpose statement something that resonates with you? How do you convey the deep sense of purpose with your team? How do you go about doing that for the last 10 years of your life now?

BOYAN SLAT: What we’re doing is hard, right? So, I mean developing new technology innovation is hard. Making… scaling a non-profit is hard. So what we’re doing requires a tremendous amount of effort and will power and drive from everyone that we have on board. And I don’t think I can pay people to give that level of motivation. Of course you don’t want people to worry about their mortgage and things like that, but at the same time I think it’s really this intrinsic motivation that is what draws people to work at the Ocean Cleanup and also what keeps people working on these very challenging problems every day. So… And of course there are moments when it feels like everything is against you and problems feel insurmountable but I think it’s important to… indeed to keep reminding people why we do what we do, why it’s worth all this pain and also to remind people how we already went through so many roadblocks over the past 10 years. That gives us a lot of confidence that the next roadblock we encounter is also something we can overcome as a team.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:And that helps, I’m sure, creating a lot of resiliency in the team as well and a lot of, you know, growth mindset all the time, accepting failures and coming back again, and trying hard again and again and again. You know what I learned through my career at Microsoft but also meeting with many different leaders, Boyan, for the last many years is that you don’t basically take a purpose as a given. You never do that. You’ve got a chance as a leader to kind of help shaping your culture of the organization, which is to me the way you leave the values, the way you do things, the way you actually make the toughest decisions when things are turning south, not going well. So how would you describe the Ocean Cleanup culture? What would it be to work for you, work in your team? You need ups and you need downs, of course, that we discussed before, System 1 breaking, etc. 

BOYAN SLAT: Yeah, so there are four pillars to our culture at the Ocean Cleanup. And we take this quite seriously in terms of both selecting people for a cultural fit as well as celebrating behaviours that we think are exemplary for that. There’s four pillars, so one is Dedicated to the Mission, so everyone at the Ocean Cleanup has some kind of connection to the ocean. Most people are either sailers or surfers or scuba divers. It’s not a hard requirement that you do some kind of thing only on the water, but it helps.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:A personal attachment to the cause, basically. Yeah, yeah, I got you.

BOYAN SLAT: Yeah, exactly. It needs to feel like a kind of personal mission for you. I mean it’s mission first, I think it’s that kind of thing, right? There’s no place for a-holes or egos, you know, that you sometimes see in bigger companies this kind of struggling for your own position. There’s no room for that at the Ocean Cleanup. Then it’s Delivering Impact. So ultimately we don’t want to be a typical organization where it’s about good intentions but no results, so we are also very hard on the KPIs, on measuring our progress.


BOYAN SLAT: So, being pragmatic too,


so being consequentialist, so thinking about the outcome very much first and foremost. Then it’s about Drive to Improve, so it’s about learning by doing, it’s about not analyzing things for years before we try things out, it’s how can we keep our failures low cost and just try things out, yeah. And also having the reflection of course, so when we make mistakes of course, analyzing those properly. And then fourthly, the fourth pillar is Do it Together, so it’s… We… There’s this natural tendency we’ve seen which is not unique to our organization but that teams become their own small islands and their own silos and I think thinking beyond the interest of your team but seeing the Ocean Cleanup as your team. Even if you’re working on rivers you are also dependent on our success in the oceans, because if we fail there, that’s going to have an impact on our overall credibility too. So it’s thinking with interest of the Ocean Cleanup as a whole, I think that’s our fourth pillar.  

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:I love the way Boyan combines those four pillars of his organizational culture. Building with that sense of purpose, to each member of the team is there personally and connecting that to a dedication, to excellence, to hard work, to outcomes, to the test and learn. Because if you fail, and if you argue about it and don’t recover from that, then there’s no point in being part of the team. And the way he brings his whole team together is super strong. On the podcast, I meet lots of change-makers. There’s something I’m always interested in asking them about is how they secure their funding. Because it’s something that is not always talked about and yet it often takes up a lot of time and energy for the founders and it’s incredibly hard work. Boyan recently secured the $25 M donation from Airbnb Co-Founder Joe Gebbia, the largest private donation Ocean Cleanup has received to date. I wondered how Boyan had felt getting that cash injection, and how it has changed things for the better. 

BOYAN SLAT: Yeah, Joe is a dear friend and his support has been exceptional and we’re all extremely thankful for that. Large donations of course have the largest impact but at the same time there’s a huge group of smaller donations that we receive continuously and just the letters we receive, the stories from school children that go for a run around the school and raise money for us and those kinds of things, we appreciate to essentially an equal level. We have this wall in the kitchen at the office with all the letters that we receive. You know, initially we I started the Ocean Cleanup I was thinking should this be a company, should this be a non-profit —


BOYAN SLAT: — and I believe that some things can be a company. I think that’s the way to go, right, because if you can align you with market forces, if you can work within that, things are a lot easier generally. You can also have access to different types of funding, to the best people, etc., with different kinds of incentive models. But the conclusion was that the amount of R&D required to get to the point that they both work and in combination with a very unclear prospect for there to be any kind of business model associated with this just made it that I didn’t see any other way than funding this development through donations. So that’s why the Ocean Cleanup became a non-profit. But still, even though we are a non-profit we do like to think as a… any sort of for-profit start-up company. So the way we treated the fund-raising in the earlier years was essentially as investment money. So we had these… we treated all those as rounds where we had some objectives, we had a plan, we went to donors, we asked if they would like to support this, and then if they said “yes” we could deliver, we could execute, and then based on those results we could go back to them, to others to ask for money for the next round. And I think a mistake many non-profits make is that they consider donations as revenue


instead of investment, because I think it makes you complacent. And really the way we treated these donations was as a way to get us to the next milestone rather than just as something that keeps going forever. So I think that’s the way we’ve gotten to where we are today. Now when it comes to scaling I do think we need different revenue models but the good thing is I think we will be creating a lot of value and I think there are stakeholders there that are willing to pay for the creation of that value. There is now a big push internationally for national governments to act beyond their national jurisdiction, to remediate the damage that has already been done. Currently a United Nations plastic treaty is being negotiated so our hope is that will actually create the financial mechanisms to fund the cleanup of the ocean garbage patches. So then for rivers, there is a very selfish incentive for countries that make a lot of plastic to tackle that because most of the plastic ends up on their beaches, and it ruins their tourism, their fisheries. And beyond that of course you have companies that benefit from the value of being associated with us, with that cleanup. So that’s essentially the transition we hope to make in the next two years or so instead of… I think philanthropy will still play an important role—

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:It would be a hybrid model, I guess, right? It would be a mixed model between… yeah.

BOYAN SLAT: I’m thinking more in terms of a real exchange of value just like you sell a product to a consumer, essentially. 

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:Maybe one day you’re going to have a kind of a plastic offset platform as well. I’m not sure this is a good idea, by the way, like the carbon offset, but…

BOYAN SLAT: Yeah, we’ve been thinking about that. So I think it’s tricky and the costs of taking a piece of plastic out of the middle of the ocean is much higher than the cost of intercepting it on the parking lot, for example. But the value is much greater because the stuff that’s in the middle of the ocean will stay there for decades while the thing in the parking lot will… 99% chance it doesn’t even make it to the ocean. So this… It’s unlike carbon where a ton of CO2 is a ton of CO2; with plastic it’s way more complicated but those are the kind of questions we are looking into at the moment.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:So I’d like you to go back, Boyan, a little bit more on the three-pronged approach you’ve been developing to achieve your mission, right. I mean first, we talked about it, with System 3 now coming up and some future innovations. You said I think that running out 10 of these larger systems in the near future could clean up up to 80% of non-specific plastic debris, right, by the end of the decade. Which would be pretty amazing. Secondly, you carried some research in 2021 that suggests that the 1000s of the worlds rivers are the source of 80% of the river-born plastic contributing to global ocean plastic pollution, so now you’re going upstream indeed to clean up the most polluted rivers in the world so that you prevent them from getting to the ocean in the first place. You’ve actual started as well going full-circle by creating a revenue source with some products like sunglasses pairs made with plastic waste retrieved from the ocean. And more ideas as you suggested to create some revenue sources for the future. So can you take us through the impact you are getting now on the river upstream, and out of this cyclical revenue model as well, you think — and they might be different sources — will contribute to some additional funding to actually accelerate the resolution of the problem that you talked about. 

BOYAN SLAT: If we don’t stop more plastic from reaching the oceans obviously we would have to keep cleaning forever. And that’s in nobody’s interest. So… and in fact at the Ocean Cleanup we make it very explicit that we want to help ourselves out of business. We don’t want to exist in 20 years from now. Of course there are some non-profits — I was listening to your podcast with Sal Khan — that’s a different kind of non-profit and I hope he continues to exist forever. 

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:Education accessible to all, yes that’s a pretty big mission.



BOYAN SLAT: But in our case it’s slightly different where we think this is sort of a one-time thing we need to do, and then we want to get this over... If we are still cleaning the ocean 20 years from now we will have failed, essentially. So in order to achieve that the question is… the question we ask ourselves is how do we stop the inflow of plastic into the oceans as quickly and as cost-effectively as possible. And then what we realized were two very important statistics: firstly, we found that


just a very tiny fraction of all the plastic that’s been used that actually flows into the oceans — so 400 million tons is produced every year, about a million tons or even less is flowing into the ocean, so that’s just a quarter of a percent of all the plastic. So… and where it flows into the ocean — that’s a quarter of a percent — those are rivers. And then what we found out next by developing AI-powered cameras that we attach to bridges to measure how much plastic is flowing out of these rivers, we found that just 1% of the world’s rivers emit about 80% of all the plastic that goes into the ocean. It’s still about 1000 rivers, so it’s still… it’s not easy, it’s not 10 rivers or something, but at least it’s achievable. So to address this river leakage we developed something that we call “interceptors” which are systems that we put in the mouths of those rivers, and they capture the plastic before it enters the oceans. So right now we have them in 12 rivers around the world, we hope to be at 20 by early next year. And then once we have 20 we think that’s the foundation based on which we can start scaling to those 1000 rivers. And we just deployed a new interceptor in one of the heaviest polluting rivers in the world, in Guatemala, where, thanks to that one river, we have now extracted more plastic this quarter than in all previous years combined.  

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:The interceptor Boyan finally got going is trying to stop a plastic tsunami. In the Rio Motagua, the largest river in Guatemala, the pollution the river creates is off the charts. It’s responsible for an estimated 2% of global plastics emissions into the ocean, which is huge. Boyan and his team are currently taking up to 44 dump trucks of trash out of the river every day. Every day. 

And is the Guatemala government actually funding you to do that because, like, that is actually a big deal for the…

BOYAN SLAT: They’re not funding us yet, so if you’re listening please get in touch. We are working closely together with them of course on the permits, on operational matters, and of course I think it’s up to us first to really demonstrate the efficacy, the performance. I think if we really have solved this river, we’ve solved this problem, I think that’s indeed a good conversation to have, to say “We can now… It’s your turn to take over the operations.”

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:And I’m sure this is where you can also — I’m sure you’re probably doing that, all right — to partnering with international government organizations, multilateral organizations like UN and others, right, to help you having this multiple touch in multiple countries in the world. 

BOYAN SLAT: Yes, earlier this year we signed a partnership with the UNDP, the United Nations Development Program, who are now essentially our first foot in the door whenever we enter a new country. So obviously they’re a massive network, they’re in all these places so they help us in getting started when we enter the country. And they also complement our work by using us as a catalyst to take off further upstream changes. So they work with the government to improve waste management, to improve education, essentially on the back of that interceptor, because when an interceptor arrives in a city, it’s like an ornament, it’s a very physical thing that everyone talks about.  


BOYAN SLAT: That’s a great place to start the conversation on these further upstream things.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:No, it’s pretty amazing! Could you touch very quickly on this this third pillar, I briefly mentioned in my question, right: the sunglasses and other objects made of recycled plastic. 

BOYAN SLAT: So to solve this problem we need to clean up the legacy pollution in the ocean, we need to stop more from going in. But then we also need to deal with all that plastic that we pull out of the oceans and rivers. And on one hand of course it’s our job to make sure that it doesn’t end back in the environment, but secondly we actually think that because there’s such a powerful story attached to this material that there is value in that material and in fact we see a lot of demand from companies to actually buy that material to use it to create durable, sustainable products. So indeed a few years ago we launched these sunglasses. They’re various of premium, $200 sunglasses, we sold them out quickly, 25,000 pieces. Of course, the amount of plastic we take out


is so vast we can’t turn it all into sunglasses, but it was a proof of concept to show that you can make beautiful things out of this material. So the next step is to partner with big multi-national companies to integrate our material into their products, so the first company that has come in now is Kia, so hopefully soon in their electric cars we’re going to see some of our material. And we’re definitely in conversation with others too which hopefully reduces the overall cost of the clean up. 

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:So do you think that eventually you’ll be able to make a systems change by creating a movement involving all the stakeholders, changing policies, changing behaviours as well, which is a bigger mission, harder! So that 10 years from now, or maybe even before, our oceans and rivers will be plastic free. Can you envision that, actually? 

BOYAN SLAT: Yeah, so with the things that we do, if we are successful with our mission to clean up the garbage patches, to clean up or to intercept in all these polluting rivers, I think that alone will be enough for us to return to clean oceans. Yeah, in about a decade taken from now. At the same time, what I hope is that what we do will spark and inspire others to work on the further upstream changes because plastic in the ocean is one thing, it’s where plastic is most harmful but there are other issues with the plastic too. And I think beyond that there are of course many other issues that I think can be solved through entrepreneurship and technology. So I think in a broader sense what I do hope is that the Ocean Cleanup can be an example on how to solve problems, not by pointing fingers or by complaining or by saying “no” to everything, but rather to say “yes” to innovation, to entrepreneurship, and to roll up your sleeves and get to work. 

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:I’m a 100% with Boyan on this one. Through my work here with Microsoft and through my foundation, I’m so much into supporting the Yes generation, as opposed to the nay-sayers. Helping individuals and organizations anticipate and shape the skill they will need in the future to work together on comprising solutions to the biggest societal problems. Boyan is just a great example of how much each one of us can achieve. And he had some particularly powerful reflections on the responsibility of technologists and engineers to spend their time on something that helps the world rather than making it worse. 

BOYAN SLAT: When I think about the destiny of where we are heading as a civilization, civilization is essentially a product of our technology, the society that we build which is a technical society. And also to develop new technology you need two things: you need money and you need  smart people, you need engineers, scientists, etc. And what strikes me is, for example, in the debate between fossil energy versus clean energy sources how, we want to move to the new kind of energy sources, obviously. I think a lot of emphasis is put on the money side of things, to talk about divestment of fossil fuel, technology and industries. But I think equally important if not more important is how the world’s smart engineers… where they choose to spend their time. I don’t know whether every engineer realizes how much power they have, but choosing where they work, whether they chose to work on the good technology or the bad technology. And when you think of the medical profession, of course doctors have a big responsibility, I think there’s an analogy there where engineers have a huge responsibility too, and doctors they get taught about ethics, they have to give the Hippocratic Oath. And I just wonder should we actually have sort of a Hippocratic Oath for engineers too to commit to using their time, to using their intelligence, to help the world rather than make it worse. 

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:I love that. I think it is very much in line with I think a strong… if not movement a strong incentive 


and push through technology, particularly I would say cloud and AI these days that you know well, to drive and govern what is called responsible AI, and then make sure that as we, technology companies and others, I mean there’s tons of companies developing technologies, we can apply the right development frameworks, the right conclusive manuals as well, to actually create technology that is driving positive outcomes for the people on the planet as opposed to negatives, and make sure we prevent that from happening. Sounds to me almost like engineering for good.

BOYAN SLAT: Exactly. I mean there’s… If you listen to people like Toby Ord and Nick Bostrom, they actually put a pretty high percentage on… in terms of the probability of all of our lives ending this century based on misaligned artificial intelligence. And even 0.1% risk is unacceptably high. I mean that’s… The background rate of me dying this year is about 0.1%, so you think about that you just… you significantly elevate just that risk based on just on AI development. And so my future, and all of our futures in part depends on the choices that engineers make today in companies like the one you work for and I sincerely hope that we do make these choices in a careful and considered way. 

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:Let me ask you a couple of last questions. I’d like to go back to the way you actually maintained for the last decade and more your physical, mental energy and positive mindset. You’ve got to be positive every day when you wake up. When you don’t catch any plastic for years, right, then you start ehhhh… you start catching a little bit of plastic, and then you start having some momentum. So how do you actually manage your positive energy in yourself to keep driving the mission and embark many more people surrounding you?

BOYAN SLAT: So in terms of how I manage my life, the key word there I think is “routine”. Firstly it frees up mental space so that you don’t have to think about just maintaining the basics, you can spend all that mental energy on being creative. And then secondly by… through these routines you essentially reduce the amount of effort you need to spend to do that. So, for example, when I was 15 or 16 I decided OK, I probably needed to do some sports to keep myself healthy and maximize my lifespan. So I thought, OK, maybe I should start running. Actually since then, there has not been a single week that I’ve skipped doing my weekend run. And sometimes it’s just five k, sometimes it’s just a short run. But I think the consistency for me… I don’t ask myself the question “Will I go for a run or not?” you know, it’s just… 


BOYAN SLAT: There’s no choice. Once it’s a routine, I kind of tend to stick to that. So I think it’s about the things that you don’t like to do that you have to do to just maintain good quality of your mental and physical health, you want to limit the cognitive load required to do those things, and you want to be as exciting and fair with all the other things in your life.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:And beyond running, would you have some other routines like, I don’t know, deep breathing or yoga or meditation or just pause, maybe just walking out of the office and getting your head like… your cleanup as well?

BOYAN SLAT: Yeah, so I tend to start my day with cold showers and then before I sleep just to get my mind out of the problems I’m working on I tend to read books for about an hour. 

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:I think it’s a great summary and we had such examples in different of the podcast episodes, Boyan. To finish of course is the last question and the last destination for you in many ways, because it is very clear to me listening to you, Boyan, that you’re going to make it, meaning you’re really going to eradicate plastic waste in the ocean and rivers. What are you going to do next when all of that garbage is off the oceans? What are you going to do next? What is Boyan’s next mission?  

BOYAN SLAT: I think I have a list of about 100 ideas about what I could do next.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:A hundred ideas! OK, what is at the top of the list, the top 2-3 if you can share?

BOYAN SLAT: I prefer not to actually, also because I wouldn’t be able to now. I have erased them from my mind because, you know this probably, when you have an idea in your head it just spreads around


and you can’t help thinking about it.

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:It becomes obsessive. 

BOYAN SLAT: Yeah, so I need to protect myself from my next obsession because I can’t do those future things if the Ocean Cleanup hasn’t been successful. So first this thing, and then I think a few years down the line hopefully I will get the opportunity to work on more things.  

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:By the way, Boyan, I think it is actually the right decision. I am with you. You can have one obsession and kind of one love at the same time, right, if you want to give the very best of you. I mean, I think you have to give it all, right, otherwise your mind is going to stop running and driving you…

BOYAN SLAT: I mean there are entrepreneurs who have been able to do multiple things at the same time, you know those like Jack Dorsey, but —


BOYAN SLAT: — it’s definitely too early for that. The Ocean Cleanup needs my full attention at the moment. 

JEAN-PHILIPPE COURTOIS:It was a huge pleasure to discuss with Boyan, to delve into his ideas and to find out more about how he is driving his mission as a leader, day by day, through his team and organization. And I’m looking forward to seeing all the things he can achieve in the near and the long term future. Talking to him actually left me feeling really energized and excited about our ability as a society to tackle these big environmental and social issues. 

You’ve been listening to Positive Leadership podcast with me, Jean-Philippe Courtois. Who would you like to hear on the show? If you get suggestions for inspiring purposeful leaders who you’d like me to speak to, well let’s get in touch on Twitter. I’m always interested in your suggestions. And if you’ve enjoyed today’s episode, please do leave us a comment in writing, and share with your friends. It really helps and makes an enormous difference. If you’d like more practical tips and advice on how to improve you positive leadership practice, to grow as an individual, a leader, and a global citizen, just subscribe to my monthly newsletter Positive Leadership and You. It’s all on my landing page. That’s it. Thanks for listening. Goodbye!