Giant 'Pac-Man' Launched To Gobble Garbage Patch

18 hours ago
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There's a small island between California and Hawaii, but it's hardly an island you'd want to visit. It's being called the Great Pacific garbage patch. It's made up of an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of trash, including an estimated 87,000 tons of plastic. Back in February 2016, I spoke with a young inventor and entrepreneur who's trying to come up with a way to get that garbage, especially the plastic, out of the ocean. Boyan Slat had the idea to use floating booms to corral the trash and then bring it to shore where it could presumably be recycled. Here's what he told me then.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BOYAN SLAT: 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, Boyan's company, Ocean Cleanup, finally deployed the structure last weekend, so we called him up again for an update, and he's with us now via Skype. Boyan Slat, welcome back to the program. Thank you so much for joining us, and congratulations.

SLAT: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Is it exciting? I mean, just tell - I mean, what are you feeling right now - that you are at this critical phase of this - something you've been dreaming about and thinking about for seven years now?

SLAT: Yeah. Well, it's exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time, for sure. Of course, last Saturday, when we took it out here from the San Francisco Bay through the Golden Gate, there was just this huge celebration. It's something that we've been working towards for five years. But now, of course, you know, that was just the beginning, and now the real test starts. And we're now - you know, the next days few - and weeks will really decide whether we can prove the technology because that's really what's required to scale up and rid the oceans of plastic.

MARTIN: In our last conversation, you described the structure as sort of a curtain floating through the ocean, but it's not actually a net. So could you just give us a little bit more detail about how this will actually work?

SLAT: Yeah, sure. So the idea is to deploy a fleet of artificial coastlines where there are no coastlines. Because the idea is that coastlines are very effective ways of catching plastic. You go to a beach, you see a lot of plastic. It's out of the ocean, it stays out of the ocean, so that's good. But the thing is that in this Great Pacific garbage patch, this area twice the size of Texas, there's simply no coastlines to collect plastic. So the idea is to have these very long floating barriers. The first one is 2,000 feet in length that gets pushed around by the wind and by the waves, making it go faster than the plastic - so, almost like a giant Pac-Man, this U-shaped barrier is able to concentrate the plastic before we take it out.

MARTIN: And I'm sure you've answered this question a million times, but just once again - what about the sea life? I think every time - when you try to impose a barrier in the ocean, no matter what it is, it somehow winds up trapping the sea life. How is that going to be avoided?

SLAT: Sure. Yeah. So the structure is designed to be inherently safe for marine life. We use a curtain, so we don't use a net, so there's nothing sea life can get entangled with. And also, the system moves very slowly. It moves around 4 inches per second on average. So really, the chances of sea life being harmed by this are very minimal.

MARTIN: You came up with this idea when you were 17, as I recall from our prior conversation. And so...

SLAT: Right.

MARTIN: You're only 24 now. I mean, obviously, you're being taken seriously because your idea is coming to fruition. But I'm just wondering how things have changed over the years? Has - do you still have to kind of confront that hurdle of doubt, of disbelief, of - what is it like for you now? Do people believe that this will work?

SLAT: Well, of course, we still have to do it. So I think, you know, some reservation or some skepticism, I think, is quite justified. Really, the next few weeks and months, you know, we'll have to show that it can be done. But yeah, I think in general it's been tremendous, the amount of support that we've received over the past few years that allowed us to get to this point. And, you know, that really made me confident that, you know, if we show that it works, then I'm 100 percent sure that it's going to happen.

MARTIN: That's Boyan Slat, CEO of Ocean Cleanup, joining us via Skype.

Boyan, thanks so much for talking with us once again.

SLAT: Yeah, a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.