The Ocean Cleanup (Project)- Why are so many scientists skeptical?

Beach-polluted-with-plastic-bottles-Cap-Haitian-Haiti

Plastic pollution can be found on beaches globally.

Three years ago, I began writing and sharing about the problems of plastic pollution in our planets waterways.  Personally, I first heard about the problems of plastic in our ocean as part of a Biology class at my community college. The Midway Atoll – an example of Plastic’s Destructive Power was inspired by the information I began studying.  As I was in the process of continuing my education, I focused my studies on Environmental Science,Waste Management, Water and the processes of laws and environmental protection.  Additionally I began utilizing Social Media like Facebook and Twitter to begin watching the active efforts of those in the field.  These activists have stood united in several areas.  The first area is that consuming less plastic means less plastic waste.  The second is that capture at consumption points is the key to eliminating the growth of plastic in the ocean.  Then a few years ago, comes this Ted Talk and the resulting Clean Oceans Project – convincing many people that we have a solution to the problem of ocean plastics.

This prototype image uses a small station to collect captured surface plastic but will not capture sub surface plastics (Image: The Ocean Cleanup)

What I found out through these efforts to network with activists and scientists in the field, as well as through my own cleanup efforts is that there is not one single solution but a bounty of solutions that combined will make a global effort more realistic.  The needs to Reduce, Reuse and Recycle are laid out in this order for a reason.

In my adventures I have been able to meet fantastic people like Marcus Erickson of 5 Gyres and Stiv Wilson, now of The Story of Stuff .  Additionally, I follow many scientist’s work online.  In conjunction to my readings, I took to the field, leading a student group which I was president of my senior year partnered with Denver Park District to begin student led efforts to mitigate plastic and other forms of human consumption from our local waterway in downtown Denver, Colorado.  This last year they participated in a local contest to attempt to design ways to mitigate trash from the water.

These efforts have led me to learn a few things.  The first is that humans are messy destructive forces on nature.  Our consumption practices have deteriorated with time and the impact is everywhere.  Fortunately we have 1000’s of community groups fighting the problem.  Awareness campaigns like those held by 5 Gyres, Plastic Pollution Coalition, Activist Abby , Earth Guardians, and more show the simple fact that plastic pollution is everywhere.  Education and active practices with others in our community are the keys to eliminating wasteful habits that wreak havoc on our planet.

Defending Our Oceans Tour - Hawaii Trash (Hawaii: 2006)

Photo of a Greenpeace cleanup

 

I want to talk about  The Ocean Cleanup project.  Somewhere over the last 4 years as I began my campaign to do my part to educate about and eliminate wasteful plastic consumption this young man from Greece, Boyan Slat who in 2012 had a TedX talk that went viral.  After this effort, dozens of my friends sent me links to his work.  Some even made reference that this guy has solved the problem and my own little efforts are no longer necessary.  But lets not move on that belief to fast.  Fast forward 4 years, this month – a prototype of Boyan’s concept to clean plastics directly out of the ocean is being deployed.  Four years of recruiting, press, research and development have occurred.  According to the website, over 40 people have joined this team.  In terms of effort I say good for them, some people doing some good for the world.

Unfortunately, this is the part where truth begins to take an important role over fiction.  From the beginning, many people have asked questions.  Key scientific experts have offered their assistance, technical know how and experience.  For the average reader, much of this may be to technical so I’ll try to keep it simple.   Many groups are saying that their technical and scientific commentary has been ignored or rejected.  Whats worse is that the common person often perceives that this project, still in development mind you, means that the problem is solved and personal behavior practices don’t matter.

Why are there problems with cleaning garbage in the middle of the ocean, I mean isn’t cleaning trash a big deal?  Yes it’s a big deal, and eliminating pollution in the first place is one of the key aspects to a cleanup as noted in this 2013 blog.  Regardless of how much you pick up, humans keep making more.  This is the primary argument of both cleanup and sustainable living entities.  One of the biggest answers is LIFE.  There are 1000’s of forms of life that exist in the ocean and any time you build a new structure, it impacts the local lifeforms.  Impacts such as attracting new ‘life zones’, leaching of chemicals from introduced manufactured goods and localized collection.  But wait for it there’s more.

The key thing to understand is that only a portion of plastic floats.  Many plastics, as they break down due to photo-degradation, combined with surface layering of contaminants – can cause plastic to sink into various depths.  In all recent photos of the new prototype including video from the groups website, floating plastic is used.  However, this important PDF from Precious Plastic (Floating properties plastic ) we see that only 1/2 of plastics actually float!  So the key concept of this device to remove plastic from the ocean is starting out with a 50% loss ratio right off the bat!

There are many scientist and environmental groups who have tried to offer additional input on the project- as outside sources with no bias.  According to many, this outreach has been ignored and the concerns passed over when relating the project to the general public.  One of the biggest concerns for many is that this idea of cleaning plastic from the ocean ignores both the need to reduce consumption and the impacts of plastic particles like those consumed by aquatic life and found in the bellies of many animals.

Understand that the ocean is a huge place, 70% of our planet is ocean.  Utilizing the ocean currents to collect trash is a cool idea.  But if you’re in the middle of the ocean constructing a foreign structure, there are other logical items to consider, like visibility and location.  While the Oceans Cleanup project seems to be targeting location, unfortunately, according to this picture – visibility wasn’t as important of an idea.

Image from The Ocean Cleanup Media Department

Oil Spill booms with logo printed on them are being utilized in a trial setup.   Again note – these will only collect surface plastics.

The most important aspect of cleaning ocean plastics are preventing them from getting there in the first place.  By refusing to consume single use plastics, or not purchasing them in the first place, we all can have a direct impact on the amount of plastic in the ocean. Recycling and up cycling are the second part of the solution.  Supporting enhanced manufactures responsibilities like deposit programs and bottle bills helps ensure that the manufacturing loop is closed.  This type of deposit should apply to everything from beverage containers to televisions and automobiles.   Other ways you can reduce pollution are saying no to plastic straws, carrying your own beverage containers – even filling up at a soda fountain instead of taking the to-go container, and always carrying your own shopping bag(s) when you leave the house.

If you find that the amount of pollution on the ground and in the water in your neighborhood is a problem, you can always start your own community clean up group.  There are some excellent tips found here.

Partial list of Sources / Further reading:

http://www.theoceancleanup.com/updates/show/item/engineering-an-ocean-cleanup-barrier-from-scratch/

http://www.deepseanews.com/2013/03/the-ocean-cleanup-the-newest-of-the-new-plans-to-remove-marine-plastic/

http://www.deepseanews.com/2014/07/the-ocean-cleanup-part-2-technical-review-of-the-feasibility-study/

http://www.deepseanews.com/2016/06/the-ocean-cleanup-deployed-a-prototype-and-i-honestly-have-a-lot-of-questions/comment-page-1/#comment-19075

Three facts (and a lot of questions) about The Ocean Cleanup

http://inhabitat.com/the-fallacy-of-cleaning-the-gyres-of-plastic-with-a-floating-ocean-cleanup-array/

http://www.theoceancleanup.com/milestones/north-sea-prototype/

 

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