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Science & Environment

How To Clean Up All That Plastic In The Oceans


So it's not exactly beach weather on the East Coast but in parts of the country, it is. Think about how many times you've walked along the beach and been disgusted by the mounds of plastic. You're not alone. By the year 2050, the world's oceans will have as much plastic as fish. That's according to researcher Nicholas Mallos from the nonprofit advocacy group, Ocean Conservancy. The group's work was cited recently at the Davos World Economic Forum in Switzerland. Mallos says that there are already 8 million tons of plastics entering the oceans each year, which is kind of like one dump truck of plastic being dumped into the ocean every minute, he explains. It's not going anywhere.

NICHOLAS MALLOS: The same qualities that make plastic such an attractive material in our everyday lives - its durability, its resistance to break down - these same qualities and chemical compounds are the same properties that make it incredibly resistant to break down in the marine environment.

MARTIN: So as the world looks for ways to solve the ocean's plastic problem, Dutch entrepreneur Boyan Slat is moving forward with a tool he says could remove about half the plastic floating in the Pacific in 10 years. Slat joins me from Delft in the Netherlands by Skype, and I asked him to tell us how it works.

BOYAN SLAT: The first test that will actually happen on the ocean will be deployed in June this year. I envisioned an extremely long network of floating barriers - they're like curtains floating in the ocean which are attached to the seabed. So what happens is that the current comes around and plastic gets pushed towards these barriers. And because it's in a V-shape, the plastic gets push towards the center. And once right there in the center, the plastic will be so dense, you can hardly see the water. And that's the spot where we can efficiently extract it from the seawater and store it before shipping it to land for recycling.

MARTIN: First of all, what about all the other wildlife in the ocean - that if it traps the plastic, why won't it trap the fish and interfere with migration patterns and have sort of a negative impact on the very population that you're trying to improve things for?

SLAT: Sure. So because we don't use nets, entanglement shouldn't be possible. So what happens is that the current flows underneath these barriers, which takes away all the fish and plankton, while the plastic remains in front of it. And that way we should be able to separate the two before it gets to any physical cleanup equipment.

MARTIN: Forgive me for noting your age, in other contexts considered rude, but you're only 21 years old. And you've been working on this for about four years now, since you were 17, if I have that right.

SLAT: Yeah, that's correct.

MARTIN: You have managed to sustain this idea through many years, at an age when many people find it difficult to be taken seriously. And you are being taken seriously. Why do you think that is? What is it that you think you've been able to engage to carry your idea along to this point?

SLAT: I think it's clear that people agree that this problem should be solved and that prevention alone isn't enough. I think the Internet has helped a lot with that as well because in the very early stage, it went viral on the Internet. It was being shared millions of times, and that then allowed me to create the seed capital through crowd-funding. I mean, there were 50,000 backers from 160 countries, so that really allowed us to start. And now thanks to some philanthropists as well as world-class engineers, we are continuing to develop the technology and soon have the first operational system in the ocean.

MARTIN: There are those who argue that there is not sufficient testing. And, of course, you know, everyone has the same goal in mind - I would think - which is to fix the problem. Has any of the criticism stung you?

SLAT: I think, in reality, opinions don't matter that much. Really, the ocean itself - that's really the thing that we're up against, the most destructive environment on the planet. The design philosophy there is to really work with the oceans instead of trying to fight it. So a similar strategy is what we pursue when dealing with critics. We actually very much welcome people's opinions, but what we're trying to achieve has never been done before. It will be the largest structure ever deployed in the oceans. It will be deeper than any structure ever deployed, and it will be further away from land - times 10 - than the world's most remote oil rig. Really, there's only one way to show that it's possible, and that's by actually doing it.

MARTIN: Well, will you keep us posted?

SLAT: Of course, I will.

MARTIN: That was Boyan Slat. He is the founder of the Ocean Cleanup Project. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

SLAT: All right, no worries. You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.