Sustainable investment: A $24 trillion ocean of opportunity

Remarkable success of The Ocean Cleanup leads the way for more sustainable investment

Sixteen-year-old Boyan Slat was diving on holiday in Greece where he was shocked by the amount of plastic he saw floating around him. "I came across more plastic bags than fish," he says. This direct encounter inspired the teenager to go home and research the scale of the problem.


The statistics are worrying: 100,000 mammals and 1 million birds die every year after swallowing plastic in the ocean. The UN predicts that unless urgent action is taken there will be more plastic than fish in the seas by 2050.

Then there's the threat to human health: No one yet knows what effect plastics — and the chemicals they absorb — will have as they work their way up the food chain.

And because cleaner oceans ultimately drive local economies and job growth, this is an issue that can't be ignored.

Now 22, the Dutch entrepreneur is a man with a mission: To clear the world's oceans of the trillions of pieces of floating plastic, one giant step at a time.

Cleaning up

Slat's ambitious project is a 100 kilometer floating barrier which uses the oceans' natural currents to trap plastic bottles, bags and other garbage while allowing fish and sea life to swim underneath unharmed. The collected plastic is then recycled and sold as a new product.

Within the next year, Slat aims to install the giant v-shaped barrier in an area of water known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which lies between California and Hawaii. Studies show the technology could clear up more than 50 percent of the Pacific's plastic within just five years.

Slat has already raised over $30 million in donations from Silicon Valley and Europe. However Slat is clear that "we won't require philanthropy or sponsorship forever." He plans to brand the recycled plastic and charge a premium price for it. This, he says, is "how we can eventually become self-sustainable," adding that over 100 companies have already shown interest in buying the recycled plastic.

A new round of funding is underway, and Slat's project is being eyed by investors and large companies keen to meet their social responsibility agendas and make a healthy return on their investment.

Impact investment

Other startups are also looking to harness the ocean's vast resources for good and for profit. GreenWave trains ocean farmers to grow sea greens, "the most sustainable form of food production on the planet," according to founder Bren Smith. "They improve the ocean, and they are already a $7-$10 billion industry globally," he enthuses.

Smith's vision is of a "blue-green economy" with "profits that are attractive to pure investors and an array of social benefits that are as broad and deep as any you'll find."

Both Smith and Slat agree that big vision thinking and profitable investment is required if the oceans are to be saved and jobs are to be created.

"UBS is showing how mainstream investors are focusing on the sustainable development goals," says Nishan Degnarain, special advisor on oceans for the World Economic Forum and UBS Global Visionary.

"They are investing in projects like The Ocean Cleanup to look at new game-changing technologies," Degnarain says.

So, has The Ocean Cleanup's successful launch marked a big moment for sustainable investment? Degnarain thinks so. "So long as The Ocean Cleanup can demonstrate value, it could be the 'Unicorn of Tomorrow.'"

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