If you’re keeping up with plastic news (it’s not just me constantly refreshing my Google news search, right?), you may have seen headlines like “The Revolutionary Giant Ocean Cleanup Machine Is About To Set Sail” and “This 21-Year-Old May Have Invented a Way to Clean Up Our Oceans.” An ocean cleanup machine? Will it work? Can it collect plastic without harming marine life? If it works, does that change the way we think about plastic pollution? Great questions – let’s explore.
What is the Ocean Cleanup?
The Ocean Cleanup is the brainchild of Boyan Slat, a 23-year-old Dutch inventor. Slat claims that his device – nylon screens suspended from large floating plastic booms and weighted by anchors – can remove half of the plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in five years. The Great Pacific Garbage patch is a plastic-contaminated area in the ocean estimated to be more than twice the size of Texas.
Will it work?
While many in the news media seem optimistic, scientists have expressed doubt about Slat’s ability to deliver on his promises.
First, there’s concern that the Ocean Cleanup’s design may not effectively address the plastic pollution problem. According to its FAQ and its recent press release, the Ocean Cleanup device’s screens extend down about three meters into the ocean and will trap pieces of plastic that are 1cm across and larger. Slat’s team argues that the amount of plastic in the ocean drops off dramatically after a depth of three meters. Some ocean experts disagree, and further point out that the vast majority of the plastics in the ocean – especially in the garbage patches (yes, that’s patches, plural – our plastic pollution problem is serious) – are microplastics smaller than 1 cm. Though it’s understandable to initially imagine a garbage patch as a floating island of bottles, plastic bags, and Styrofoam food containers, the reality is that it’s more like a plastic soup made up of tiny particles (think grains of sand) of degraded plastic. So if it’s true that most of the plastic is microscopic and is distributed throughout the ocean rather than concentrated towards the surface, the Ocean Cleanup could be using a tremendous amount of resources to, literally, barely scrape the surface of a larger problem.
Moreover, in terms of design, questions have been raised about the structure’s ability to withstand extreme ocean conditions. Should anything go wrong, the Ocean Cleanup device, largely made up of plastic, could somewhat ironically end up becoming significant plastic debris itself and contributing to, rather than fixing, the problem it set out to solve.
Assuming it does stay intact and is able to meet its plastic-collecting goals, can this be accomplished without disrupting the delicate marine ecosystem? Slat’s team says they’ve taken appropriate precautions and have designed their system with preserving marine life as a top priority. Major concerns expressed by oceanographers include ensuring animals aren’t entangled in or inconvenienced by (e.g., in the case of migration) the screens and the prevention of biofouling (the growth of organisms on the equipment itself) without using chemicals that will harm sea life and affect the ocean environment.
If it works, what next?
We believe that Boyan Slat and the Ocean Cleanup team have the best of intentions, and we sincerely hope that they are able to succeed in cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch without adverse consequences. But whether or not the Ocean Cleanup achieves its mission, we still have a plastic problem. We are putting plastic into the ocean at an ever-increasing rate. Even if we could continually clean the ocean, which is hardly an efficient waste management system, the amount of plastic collected would be unmanageable. What would we do with all of it? Slat says he’ll recycle what he recovers, but that may not be feasible. The market for plastic waste has been decreasing in recent years, and degraded plastics, like what is likely to be recovered from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, are an even tougher sell. Different types of plastics require different recycling conditions, and trying to sort degraded plastic is more trouble than it’s worth for those in the recycling business. Landfills and incineration are not great options either. When you consider that an estimated 8 million tons of plastic enter the ocean each year, we’d quickly overwhelm our already crowded landfills, and incinerating it releases harmful chemicals and contributes to air pollution.
So where does that leave us?
It would be great if we could safely clean up what’s currently in the ocean, but we still need to address the problem at its source. The best way to keep plastic out of the ocean is to use less. We need to transform our single-use culture into a sustainable one where items are made to be reused instead of discarded. Headlines that promise too-good-to-be-true solutions do a disservice to this reality. We can’t wait for someone else to clean up after us. The time is NOW, and it starts with us.
Three ways to address ocean plastic pollution
1) Prevention, prevention, prevention. We can’t overstate this. We need to use less plastic. If you haven’t already, start with the big four – either switch to reusables or skip them: plastic water bottles, disposable coffee cups, straws, and plastic bags. Ready to take it to the next level? Do a waste audit – look through your trash and recycling. What single-use plastic waste are you generating? Look for alternatives, one swap at a time.
2) Do a beach clean. Or a park clean. Or a street clean. Every item you pick up is an item that won’t harm wildlife or get into the ocean and degrade into microplastic. We’ve even heard that waste from the garbage patches cycles back to the shores periodically, so, who knows, by cleaning your local beach, you may even be helping on that front!
3) Spread the word. Prevention is important and we need everyone on board. Our posts reach an amazing community of people who are committed to reducing plastic pollution, but your social media posts reach people who may not be aware yet. Feel free to share our content, but don’t be afraid to use your own voice. Speak out, but don’t lecture or shame. Discuss your experiences, explain why it’s important to you, and share some of your favorite solutions!