The Ocean Cleanup Is Not a Solution To Plastic

Many small striped fish are gathered around a cluster of floating plastic and seaweed.
Photo by Naja Bertolt Jensen on Unsplash

The Plastic Pollution Problem

It is an undeniable fact that there is a lot of plastic in the ocean (an estimated 7,000 to 35,000 tons in 2014). The world produced 381 million tons of plastic in 2015.  Hakai magazine likened the problem to a garbage truck dumping an entire load into the ocean every minute. This plastic waste clogs our waterwaysstrangles marine life, and blemishes our beaches. It is very obviously a problem, but less obvious how we should go about fixing it.

One of the more highly publicized and well-funded solutions is The Ocean Cleanup. You may have heard of it around 2013 when then-19-year-old founder Boyan Slat started gathering support and funding for the effort. He was very successful in attracting publicity and raising funding for a fleet of boats and specially-designed nets to target plastic floating in ocean gyres. These are areas where rotating ocean currents concentrate plastic. The most famous example is one in the Pacific, which has created the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This is where The Ocean Cleanup has started.

Scientists like oceanographers Miriam Goldstein and Kim Martini were quick to point out some major technical flaws early on in the project. A subsequent feasibility study addressed some but not all of their concerns. Engineering concerns aside, the project isn’t likely to succeed in its goal of removing plastic pollution from accumulation areas in ocean gyres. Experts in the field of ocean plastic pollution agree that there is major cause for concern for the idea. It’s a straightforward response to an oversimplified problem.

Reasons for Failure

Most plastic is tiny.

Plastic items degrade in the sun, and break up into smaller and smaller pieces. Once they become < 5 mm in length, they are called microplastics. Studies indicate that they are pervasive in the marine environment with negative consequences for many different types of marine life.

Most plastic is not at the surface.

These tiny pieces (and even some larger ones) have the annoying habit of leaving surface waters. The route they take from there is variable. Some sink, some are ingested, some are beached. The ones that sink become incorporated into deep-sea sediments, and will probably remain there forever.

The collection device harms ocean life.

There is an entire ecosystem of creatures that live at the surface of the open ocean. Floating plastic serves as upside down island homes for these animals. While it would be better for it not to be there in the first place, removing it means rendering these animals homeless. Especially the brute force method of The Ocean Cleanup— no animal is going to survive being trapped in a net and squished together with a bunch of trash. There will also probably be significant bycatch of migratory ocean species (think whales, turtles, tuna, sharks).

We’re still adding plastic to the ocean.

Cleanup methods are unproven and insufficient. Cleaning up plastic without stopping the source is like trying to stop a leaky faucet by drinking it. Unless we stop using the material altogether, it’s still going to make its way to the ocean. We need to prevent further plastic pollution while we clean up what’s already there.

What Should We Do Instead To Solve Ocean Plastic?

As good as the intentions are, The Ocean Cleanup needs to be drastically modified before it will be effective and outweigh any negative consequences. The group should continue the momentum they’ve gained with funding and public attention, but direct these assets differently.

Local cleanups may appear to address a very small scale, but can have a huge impact. Additionally, the problem of plastic pollution looks very different depending on the location. Removing it from mangroves requires a slow, hands-on, time-intensive approach in order to avoid damaging the ecosystem. Removing it from a large, relatively flat beach can be done quickly and easily with untrained participants. Local volunteers who know a location well and are motivated to care for their home can be a very effective approach that is tailored to the area.

The true long-term prevention strategy is to improve waste management systems. This is a huge challenge, especially in countries that don’t really have them in the first place.

It’s important to note that most of the plastic in the open ocean that isn’t microplastics is derelict fishing gear. That’s right; not your straws, not your cups. These are nets, lines, and buoys that became entangled and were abandoned. This gear will keep being lost in the oceans unless changes are made to better manage its use. Preventing further additions is going to require strictly enforced fishing regulations.

What to Take Home

In the bigger picture, plastic pollution is bad, but climate change and overfishing have a much larger impact on ocean ecosystems as a whole. Those are much more difficult issues to tackle, and focusing on plastic can be a deflection technique as a problem that’s more visible to most people and easier to solve. Individual plastic reduction is a straightforward issue that can be promoted with social media campaigns and selling reusable products. When taken to the extreme of banning plastic altogether, there are unintended consequences such as an outsized effect on people with disabilities. People can feel good about themselves by taking a few small actions to protect the environment.

Reducing personal plastic use is great, but it’s not enough. We don’t need to choose one product over another; we need to overhaul our over-consumption. (Note: if you’re an average reader, 3.5 truckloads of garbage entered the ocean since you started reading this piece.) We need to make sweeping systemic changes, both to reduce plastic and to reverse climate change and overfishing.

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