The idea that acres of plastic and other garbage now litter our vast oceans isn't a new discovery, of course. Slat's idea of how to tackle the problem is. Rather than trying to round up discarded plastic using boats and nets — a solution that oceanic experts say could cost billions of dollars and take thousands of years — Slat's solution has the plastic coming to him.
The Ocean Cleanup's technology uses long floating rubber barriers with nets below the surface that act as a sort of artificial coastline, passively catching and concentrating debris using the power of the ocean's natural currents. Once corralled into one location, boats can then transport the plastic from the ocean and it can eventually be sold as recycled material to, say, auto, furniture and consumer electronics manufacturers.
If all this sounds complicated, it is — and Slat is the first to acknowledge it. "When I started, I thought I would likely fail, and I still might, but considering the scale of the problem, it was important to at least try," he says.
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The Ocean Cleanup got its official start in 2013, and the following year Slat raised $2.2 million through a crowdfunding campaign that attracted 38,000 donors in 160 countries. Over the past two years, he's raised another $10 million in cash donations from entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, including Salesforce.com's CEO Marc Benioff, and in Europe. A new round of funding is now under way to raise the money needed to cover future testing. Though Slat says he's received money from the Dutch government, that's not the kind of funding he prefers. "Our testing cycles are faster than any government subsidy cycle, so it's not something we want to be reliant on," he adds.
The testing of Slat's technology began in earnest last summer and will continue in various phases over the next several years. Last June The Ocean Cleanup reached an important milestone when it tested a 100-meter-long segment of the barrier for four months in the North Sea, about 14 miles off the coast of the Netherlands. Slat says the purpose was to see how the barrier fared in open ocean water as well as its durability during strong storms and turbulent waves. "We released a bit of plastic in front of the barrier to see how it did, but the real purpose was to see how the system did in the ocean," Slat explains.
Later this year the next iteration of Slat's system will launch in the North Pacific Ocean. This pilot program will, for the first time, test how successful the barriers are in actually trapping the plastic. The barriers will be one- to two-kilometers in length (a little over a mile long) and will once again need to withstand the brutal conditions that can occur with extreme storms out on the ocean.