Future

Boyan Slat, A (Nicer) Elon Musk To Save Our Oceans

The project 'The Ocean Cleanup' wants to use its system to rid the oceans from plastic waste. The founder thinks big about the planet and beyond. And he's not a jerk.

Boyan Slat at the Sept. 8 launch of Ocean Cleanup in SF Bay
Boyan Slat at the Sept. 8 launch of Ocean Cleanup in SF Bay
Stefan Beutelsbacher

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.

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.

"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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Geopolitics

Erdogan And Boris Johnson: A New Global Power Duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too.

Johnson and Erdogan in NYC on Sept. 20

Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung

-Analysis-

BERLIN — According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. The agreement covers billions of euros' worth of military equipment, and the two countries have committed to come to each other's aid if they are attacked.

Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey.

Officially, the Turkish government is unruffled, saying the pact doesn't represent a military threat. But the symbolism is clear: with the U.S., UK and Australia recently announcing the Aukus security pact, Ankara fears the EU may be closing ranks when it comes to all military issues.

What will Aukus mean for NATO?

Turkey has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

Europe's approach to security and defense is changing dramatically. Over the past few months, while the U.S. was negotiating the Aukus pact with Britain and Australia behind the EU's back, a submarine deal between Australia and France, which would have been worth billions, was scrapped.

The EU is happy to keep Erdogan waiting

Officially, Turkey is keeping its cards close to its chest. Addressing foreign journalists in Istanbul, Erdogan's chief advisor Ibrahim Kalin said the country was not involved in Aukus, but they hope it doesn't have a negative impact on NATO. However, the agreement will have a significant effect on Turkey.

"Before Aukus, the Turks thought that the U.S. would prevent the EU from adopting a defense policy that was independent of NATO," says Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkey at the Brussels think tank Carnegie Europe. "Now they are afraid that Washington may make concessions for France, which could change things."

Macron sees post-Merkel power vacuum

Turkey's concerns may well prove to be justified. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey, partly because it is an important trading partner and partly because it has a direct influence on the influx of migrants from Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

Merkel consistently thwarted France's plans for a stricter approach from Brussels towards Turkey, and she never supported Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU.

But now she that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

Ankara fears the defense pact between France and Greece could be a sign of what is to come. According to a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the agreement is aimed "at NATO member Turkey" and is damaging to the alliance. Observers also assume the agreement means that France is supporting Greece's claims to certain territories in the Mediterranean which remain disputed under international law, with Turkey's own sovereignty claims.

Paris is a close ally of Athens. In the summer of 2020, Greece and Turkey were poised on the threshold of a military conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. Since then, Athens has ordered 24 Rafale fighter jets from France, and the new pact includes a deal for France to supply them with three frigates.

Photo of French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

Sadak Souici/Le Pictorium Agency/ZUMA

Erdogan’s EU wish list

It's not the first time that Ankara has felt snubbed by the EU. Since Donald Trump left the White House, Turkey has been making a considerable effort to improve relations with Brussels. "The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is peaceful and the migrant problem is under control," says Kalin. Now it is "high time" that Europe does something for Turkey.

Erdogan's wish list is extensive: making it easier for Turks to get EU visas, renegotiating the refugee deal, making more funds available to Turkey as it continues the process of joining the EU, and moderniszing the customs union. But there is no movement on any of these issues in Brussels. They're happy to keep Erdogan waiting.

Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU

Now he is starting to look elsewhere. At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense.

 Turkey's second largest export market

The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016. Unlike other European capitals, London reacted quickly, calling the coup an "attack on Turkish democracy," and its government has generally held back in its criticism of Turkey.

At the end of last year, Johnson and Erdogan signed a new free trade agreement, which will govern commerce between the two countries post-Brexit. Erdogan has called it "the most important treaty for Turkey since the customs agreement with the EU in 1995."

After Germany, Britain is Turkey's second largest export market. "Turkey now has the opportunity to build a new partnership with the United Kingdom and it must make the most of it," says economist Ali Kücükcolak from the Istanbul Commerce University.

Erdogan is well aware of this, as Turkey is in desperate need of an economic boost. Inflation currently stands at 19%, and the currency's value is consistently falling. Turks are feeling the impact on their daily lives: food and rent are becoming increasingly expensive, while salaries remain unchanged.

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