Plastic pollution in oceans can't be solved with a gadget


Every so often, somebody comes up with a plan for finding and removing the particles of plastic that litter our oceans and accumulate in "garbage patch" gyres. These plans meet with great acclaim ... from everybody except the people who know the most about garbage patches and plastic pollution.

Why do marine scientists and non-profits like The Ocean Conservancy speak out against ideas like 19-year-old Boyan Slat's ocean cleanup technology? Primarily, it's because plans like Slat's tend to be based on a really simplistic understanding of both the problem and ocean systems and, as a result, wouldn't actually work in the real world.

But there's a bigger issue here as well. This isn't a matter of mean old scientists talking dirt on the big ideas of a brave, smart kid. Great-sounding-but-not-actually-effective ocean cleanup plans have real consequences. They divert limited money and time away from the actually useful work. Worse, they inadvertently help prop up an unsustainable system where it's totally okay for us to keep letting plastic get into the oceans ... because we can just come back later and clean it up. But that's simply not true, writes Stiv Wilson, policy director of the ocean conservation nonprofit

I find debating with gyre cleanup advocates akin to trying to reason with someone who will argue with a signpost and take the wrong way home. Gyre cleanup is a false prophet hailing from La-La land that won’t work – and it’s dangerous and counter productive to a movement trying in earnest stop the flow of plastic into the oceans. Gyre cleanup plays into the hand of industry, but worse, it diverts attention and resources from viable, but unsexy, multi-pronged and critically vetted solutions.

...The ocean surface is 315 million square kilometers; 70% of the earth’s surface. Plastic isn’t just contained within the borders of the gyres, it’s everywhere in the ocean. Half of it, like Coke bottles and PVC pipe, sinks. What does a garbage patch look like? Imagine the night sky on a cloudless, moonless night. Now replace the ocean surface with space, and the stars with plastic; it’s dispersed and it goes on infinitely. Yes, humans have managed to create a problem on a degree of scale that’s nearly incomprehensible and so overwhelming we’re predisposed to like ideas like Slat’s because it has the appearance of near divine simplicity. Every time a gyre cleanup proponent has shown me a design for addressing the problem, the first thing I ask is, ‘do you have the money to make 20 million of those doo-hickies?’ They look at me with a puzzled look, and I just mutter, ‘The ocean is really, really, really, big.”

...Like the size of the ocean, the amount of plastic we consume is an issue of scale. In North America, the annual per capita consumption of plastic is roughly 326 pounds as of 2010. That statistic is up nearly a 100 pounds per capita from 2001. Of course, the plastics industry doesn’t like the idea of us consuming less because it means less plastic sold. They keep saying all we need is ‘more recycling.’ But despite even nominal gains in recycling, the sum total of virgin plastics produced in the world annually is going up, not down, which means the sum total of plastics entering the ocean is going up, too.

There are real solutions to the problem of plastic pollution, but they don't come in the form of feel-good gadgets that will sift the particles out of the water. And if we convince ourselves otherwise, then we're going to ignore the stuff we should really be doing.

Image: Some Rights Reserved by Edinburgh Greens

Notable Replies

  1. But we can still use magnets to clear up space debris, right?

  2. The solution is obvious; sharks with frickin' plastic-destroying-lasers on their heads...

  3. lava says:

    Seems anything that can filter out tiny bits of plastic is also going to filter out tiny organisms - taking out the bottom of the food chain, like chopping off a trees roots.

  4. It's terribly sad that the answer to this problem is the same as the answer to climate change, and therefore equally unlikely: stop doing the harmful stuff. People love to think that they can keep on living the same way, the rentier class can keep getting richer off of it, and someone else will come up with the fancy way to clean it up--don't bother me with the details. The necessary solutions are in fact so simple, conceptually, yet so enormously insurmountable for reasons of social and political inertia and entrenched interests. The gyres spit out half their contents on every orbit--gyre debris eventually becomes beach debris. So, stop chucking plastic into the sea, clean up the beaches, and in a generation the problem will mostly have gone away. But it won't happen, so: to the people of the future post-apocalyptic wasteland reading this from an archived copy of the early 21st-c internet: I'm sorry we fucked everything up and probably bringing my own carrier bags to the grocery store was not enough frowning

  5. Nano plastic disassemblers. I love it. I always wanted our Great Filter event to be Grey Goo.

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