If I had a dime for each brilliant idea to “clean up the “Garbage Patch” that has been forwarded to me over the last few years I would be a millionaire.
These gyre cleanup machines, devices and foundations that emerge periodically are not going to happen. However they are likely to get lots of media attention –and distract from the real solutions.
These more or less sophisticated delusions and fantasies of massive offshore cleanups testify to how misunderstood our plastic pollution problem is, and how disconnected we are from nature in general, and from our oceans in particular.
Let me start from the beginning.
I have been deeply involved in plastic pollution awareness and activism for over five years. In 2009 I convened the Strategic Council on Plastic Pollution, a meeting in Google with the leaders in the study and remediation of plastic pollution which was seminal in framing the vocabulary and stories that opened up plastic pollution as an emerging space for activism.
I am a cofounder of Plastic Pollution Coalition (uniting more than 150 organizations worldwide), a founding member of Midway , led by Chris Jordan, a founder of El Plástico Mata, among other organizations. My work has touched millions of people worldwide over the last four years, through organizations, media, online videos, talks, and other avenues.
When I hear about devices or processes that could clean up the plastics in the ocean, I always like to ask some basic questions: why and how would these machines be funded, built, operated and maintained? And by whom? Not just a few of these, but enough of these to have an impact at an oceanic scale -which usually means by the multiples of thousands.
These basic questions usually make the whole idea dissipate like a cloud of smoke in the air.
And maybe this is why these projects are usually little more than a bunch of computer renditions and mock ups posted on some website. I’m yet to see a scaled down proof of concept deployed to clean a smaller area, say Puget Sound or Chesapeake Bay –or even one of the Great lakes, which are also horribly polluted by plastics.
But that’s not all. A bit of additional inquiry reveals even larger problems.
First, there is a gross misconception about what garbage patches are. Plastics take hundreds of years to biodegrade, buy they fragment rather quickly into smaller and smaller particles. Science shows that the vast majority of plastics in the ocean are tiny, under 10 mm in size. The concentrations are very thin, and the particles are scattered throughout the water column of all oceans in the world.
In actuality what we have is a planetary soup of plastic particles. In some areas concentrations are higher. These are the “garbage patches, located in the ocean Gyres sometimes as vast as continents, where the soup has higher and more consistent concentrations of particles. That’s all.
In order for these machines (assuming these get paid for, built and deployed) to capture significant amounts of plastic, they would need to cover millions of square miles of ocean and somehow manage to tell plastic particles apart from other things of the same size, such as fish eggs and plankton, which are essential to all marine life.
Also, the people who come up with some cleanup machines, ranging from product designers to teen-prodigy inventors, often seem to forget a not-so-minor detail: that the ocean is not still, and flat like a giant blue tennis court. The ocean is always moving, sometimes with amazing force. In the unlike event of these contraptions ever being made, they would be pushed around all the time –when not torn to pieces and sunk.
I am a sailor, and have logged tens of thousands of nautical miles offshore. This has helped me understand the true scale and power of the ocean.
Another key detail that seems to be consistently forgotten is that millions of tons of new plastic trash are entering the ocean as we speak. A fairly old and conservative study estimated that 6.4 million tons of plastic waste enter the ocean every year –adding up to over 100 million tons of plastic already polluting our oceans.
Trying to clean this spiraling mess with ships or machines would be like trying to bail out a bathtub with a tea spoon… while the faucet is running!
Which brings to mind the mythological curse of Sisyphus, king of Corinth punished to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down -and to repeat this action forever.
What about stopping plastic pollution at the source? Wouldn’t that be a better use of our ingenuity, time and money? It also happens to be quite doable too.
Let’s look at the real problem: every 5 minutes 2 million plastic beverage bottles are discarded in the US, enough to cover 8 football fileds. That’s just for beverages, just in the US, which is 5% of the world’s population. Just bottled water in the US alone generates enough discarded bottles in one week to circle the planet 5 times.
So we can create thousands of incredibly expensive and sophisticated machines to clean the ocean, but are unable to have a drink of water without generating millions of tons of plastic trash?
The inconvenient truth is that we are using plastic, a toxic and very durable material that lasts centuries,for packaging and single use applications, that is to create things are designed to become garbage after a short use. And we are doing this at a massive scale to the benefit of a few corporations, to the detriment of all.
We have created a spiraling consumer culture and then turned it into a throwaway culture. Unless you stop this first, “cleanups” are futile.
It is also interesting to notice how strongly our culture equates “solution” with “process” and/or “machine”. One immediatly has to ask: “What would be the solution for these solutions?”
Some delusional projects go on to imagine inhabited plastic-capturing floating islands and cities that become tourist attractions and have docks for cruise ships. Captain Nemo becomes a waste manager… and creates a floating Las Vegas.
But even given all the misconceptions and cultural trappings that surround us, one has to wonder how these whacky ideas get so much media traction. Different variations of the theme come up often, along with their cousins: the miracle machine that turns plastic into oil, and the 16 year old that discovers a plastic eating bacteria in his garage.
Ultimately, in addition to the relentless activity of vested interest that promote these misconceptions, these stories get passed around because we all like to hear a whisper in our ear that says “it’s all going to be OK. Keep consuming and don’t think too much.”
The real solutions are to stop our addition to throwaway and disposable plastics, to make producers responsible for the entire life cycle of their products, and, ultimately, to embrace a culture of sustainability.
More information about plastic pollution in the oceans can be found at 5Gyres.org For ways to drastically reduce our plastic footprint I suggest visiting the webs of Plastic Pollution Coalition and My Plastic Free Life.