Four-and-a-half years ago, Boyan Slat, then just a teenager, first proposed a massive marine cleanup device that would travel the ocean, sucking up trash. What at the time might have seemed like an impressive—if not fanciful—science fair concept has continued to grow. Today, Slat has assembled a team of pro engineers, raised millions of dollars, and put a prototype in the unforgiving waters of the North Sea. He's still some ways from actually cleaning up the world's oceans (that's the dream). But he's further along than some doubters thought he might be.
This week, Slat's Ocean Cleanup foundation carried out the next part in its game plan, flying a series of reconnaissance trips across the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the buildup of plastic between California and Hawaii. The aim is to gauge the extent of the pollution and to understand exactly what debris the eventual device will have to deal with.
"It's important to know how much of this stuff is out there. It influences the design of the system, the logistics, the economics, and the recycling," he says. The first flight, lasting two hours and 20 minutes, spotted more than 1,000 large objects, including fishing nets, unmoored buoys, containers, pallets, pieces of plastic tarp, and plastic chemical drums. "It was more than we thought there would be," says the 22-year-old Dutch inventor.
Slat's big idea is to build a 1.2 mile-long floating barrier—an "artificial coastline" that collects waste using the ocean's own currents. In the center of the design is a central tower with a conveyor that lifts the waste out of the water, automatically separating it into different components. This summer, he launched a prototype barrier about 20 times smaller than the final hoped-for version. It didn't go quite as planned: "There was some damage to the side. But that's exactly why we're doing this prototype, so we can discover these things before we put in the larger system," he says.
There are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean, according to one estimate, though most of these are smaller pieces than Slat's machine will be able to capture. Some marine pollution campaigners have criticized Slat for concentrating only on visible pollution, not the "soup" beneath the waves, which is potentially more harmful to ocean ecosystems. But Slat says such comments are unfair and miss the point. He's not claiming to pick up everything, and he's fully behind other pollution mitigation efforts, including better land-based trash management.
"The reception [from other campaigners] has been mixed sometimes," Slat says. "It's a pity. It's up to them if they have a negative position against it or whether they want to join us. There are many things that need to happen to solve this problem. I see preventative and cleanup activities as complementary, not competitive."
The Ocean Cleanup foundation has raised $10 million so far, including crowdfunding, a grant from the Dutch government, and money from an anonymous Dutch benefactor (Salesforce.com's Mark Benioff is another contributor). Slat is now trying to raise a further $16.8 million to launch a full pilot toward of the end of 2017. (He's hoping Silicon Valley will chip in.)
"It's really not a lack of willingness from the world to solve this problem," he says. "The amount of attention we've got is quite overwhelming. It's really a technological problem. If we can get that right, I think this [project] will happen. But we have to get to that proof-of technology stage."
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