Rick-Ernest Bonnier of Clean Ocean, member of the African Marine Waste Network
Rick-Ernest Bonnier, 27, wants to change the world. In particular, he wants to rid it of the scourge of plastic pollution that is enveloping marine life around the globe – and floating in the idyllic waters of his homeland, Mauritius.
Bonnier is, of course, not alone. Those who hear he has turned to crowdfunding to try and raise cash to perfect and scale up a prototype machine that will ‘attract’ surface and submerged plastic to gather in areas from which it can then be collected may raise an eyebrow. Bonnier doesn’t explain exactly how his machine works, and says that yes, the prototype still needs work. Currents, or water movement, “is one of my best friends,’ he says seriously. He’s tested his machine in an aquarium and a friend’s pool; ocean conditions will be dramatically different. He’s not an engineer; he’s working with volunteers and friends, and is seeking out technicians and welding workshops to help. Right now there isn’t much visual evidence of how the creation works, just a static shot that raises more questions than it answers.
All of which gives one pause for thought. No matter Bonnier’s sincerity, what are the odds that he will succeed?
But then consider Boyan Slat, 24, founder and CEO of the Ocean Cleanup, who dropped out of an aeronautical engineering degree to chase his dream. He plans to scoop plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch after concentrating it through the use of drifting barriers. By 2017, he had gathered donations and crowdfunding of some £31.5 million, and employed 65 staff. His invention was all set to be deployed to site on 8 September 2018. Both fans and critics will be watching the results.
At this stage, what Slat and Bonnier have in common is that they are dreamers. Bonnier was born in an inland Mauritius town, Curepipe. He had to travel to get to the beach. His father died when he was 15, making it impossible to pursue dreams of studying marine biology. A cousin at a dive centre helped him learn to dive in exchange for helping out, and the experience “triggered something”: a love for the oceans and the wonders they contain.
Bonnier began volunteering at a local marine conservation society, educating children about cetaceans and other creatures. Later he volunteered on studies to monitor pink pigeons and Mauritian kestrels. This led to other opportunities in endangered species protection. He participated in the Mandela Washington Fellowship Programme and a Long Now Foundation project. More recently, he worked for Wise Oceans, guiding and educating resort guests on snorkelling experiences.
Bonnier, in other words, has hustled to follow his heart. He hopes raising sufficient funds will allow him to test his clean-up machine in the ocean by year-end and shoot a video of it at work. He recalls that just over a decade ago, when he first started diving, you’d see far more large fish, sharks and biodiversity on the reefs. Since then, coral bleaching, crown-of-thorns starfish invasion and other pressures have taken their toll. “There are definitely less fish,” he says. And there is significantly more plastic pollution.
"The ocean is everything to me and I am sick of seeing marine animals dying due to trash in the ocean,” says Bonnier. “International ocean plastic pollution is devastating habitats.” His invention will, he plans, gather litter as well as smaller pieces of plastic that are entering the food chain.
Bonnier will have his critics, but there’s no denying his urge to try and contribute to change (his marine education alone will have spread ripples). As the Guardian said of Slat, who gets seasick on boats, “he may or may not have the solution to one of the planet’s greatest puzzles, but he’s doing something about it – and that’s better than nothing.”
Sometimes, one simply has to try.
See Are You on the Map? If you're part of any initiative that is aimed at keeping our seas around Africa clean, you should be. Our goal is zero waste to Africa’s seas by 2035.