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 5Gyres.org.
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.