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article image‘Inspirational’ Dutch teenager wins UN's top environmental award

By Robert Myles     Nov 17, 2014 in Environment
Geneva - Dutchman Boyan Slat has become the youngest ever winner of the United Nations’ top environmental accolade, the Champions of the Earth Award for his inspirational work to clean up the world’s oceans.
Aged just 19 years old, Boyan Slat is founder of the innovative The Ocean Cleanup initiative. Slat was still in high school when he devised a means of cleaning up the world’s oceans. The elegant simplicity of Slat’s idea involved using natural ocean currents and winds to passively concentrate and transport floating plastic along solid floating barriers towards a central collection platform.
According to a recent feasibility study, Slat’s Ocean Cleanup reckons that almost half the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, one of the worst examples of plastic pollution on the planet, can be removed using this technology in ten years’ time. The same study (large PDF) estimates that cleaning the Pacific of plastic using ships and nets would take 79,000 years — and that assumes the plastic didn’t blow around!
Eminent British environmental scientist, Sir Robert Watson, featured among other Champions of the Earth award winners announced in Geneva by the UN’ Environment Programme (UNEP). Sir Robert received the Science and Innovation Award in recognition of his work in promoting the science behind ozone depletion, global warming and the impacts of biodiversity loss.
Among the projects with which he's been involved, Sir Robert has played an important role in international efforts to regulate ozone depletion and global warming and has also made contributions to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
But it was Boyan Slat who came out tops in the UN’s Inspiration and Action award. Previous winners include Brian McClendon of Google Earth and Carlo Petrini, Founder of Slow Food. The competition judges lent much weight to what they saw as Slat’s inspirational efforts to mobilize support to rid the ocean of marine litter, a problem that’s by no means exclusive to the Pacific and one that poses a worldwide threat to marine life.
$13 billion annual cost of marine litter
Announcing the award, in a statement the UN’s Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said, “The marine litter problem is global in scale and inter-generational in impact, exacting tremendous ecological, economic, and social costs around the world. According to UNEP research conservative estimates of the overall financial damage of plastics to marine ecosystems now stand at US$13 billion each year.”
Steiner continued, “Boyan Slat is inspiring people, organizations and governments to find solutions to the escalating threat of plastic debris in our oceans, while also serving as a reminder to us all that more work needs to be done to improve the capacity of all countries to better manage solid waste and to make production and consumption patterns far more sustainable so that we produce less waste, and put less pressure on our increasingly degraded ocean."
The UN accolade wasn’t the first that Slat’s picked up. He’s also been recognized as one of the 20 “Most Promising Young Entrepreneurs Worldwide” by Intel EYE50.
Slat brings an entrepreneurial approach to tackling environmental problems that’s seen a presentation he made at TEDxDelft 2012, when Slat was aged just 18, garner over 1.6 million YouTube views. He’s also managed to raise over two million dollars through crowd-funding which will go towards underwriting the next phase of The Ocean Cleanup initiative.
Commenting on his award, Slat said, “I’m incredibly excited and honoured to receive this award on behalf of everyone at The Ocean Cleanup, a team of more than 100 people worldwide. Although we are still several years away from implementing the technology, I’m truly grateful that our hard work is already being recognized. We’ll continue to do our utmost to fulfil the expectations, and initiate the largest ocean cleanup in history.”
Other winners of UNEP’s 2014 Champions of the Earth Award included: H.E. Tommy Remengesau, Jr. President of Palau, H.E. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Sixth President of the Republic of Indonesia and Mario Molina, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and a leading scientist behind the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer.
Awards are given in the following categories: Policy Leadership, Entrepreneurial Vision, Lifetime Awardees, Science and Innovation, and Inspiration and Action.
UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki-moon and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner will honor award winners at a ceremony to be held at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. on Nov. 19, 2014.
More about boyan slat, ocean cleanup, Unep, champions of the world awards, marine pollution