Those Crazy Plastic Cleaning Machines

Those Crazy Plastic Cleaning Machines

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.

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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.

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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The plastic industry loves distractions like the cleaning machines, because they put the focus on “cleaning up”, not on how their business of making disposable plastics is destroying the planet

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.

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We live inside of an entropic culture addicted to process: doing, manufacturing, selling… However, many of our planetary problems call for quite the opposite:  not doing, stopping, preventing, protecting, designing better, etc.  Protective actions that are so simple to be noticed and valued by our culture.

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.”

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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.

 

 

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38 Comments

  1. Would it help if:
    1. All plastic were made from bio plastics from now on and all Petro plastics were abolished?
    2. Clamshell packaging a Costco was outlawed ?

    Reply
    • Regarding bio plastics… Those are more polluting to make than oil based plastics, and not necesarily biodegradable, especillay in ocean water. Also if we tried to switch to bioplastics all the 280 million tons of plastic we manufacture every year we will create a global food crisis. The solution is drastically reducing our addiction to throwaway plastics -eliminating clamshells at Costco would be a great thing, but a tiny drop in the bucket. Thank you!

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      • With respect Manuel, I believe you are mistaken when you state that bioplastics “…are more polluting to make than oil based plastics”. This is just not true.

        Bioplastics are less energy intensive to produce and can now be manufactured from agricultural waste so need not impact upon food production. There have been detailed life cycle analysis carried out: http://www.natureworksllc.com/The-Ingeo-Journey/Eco-Profile-and-LCA/Life-Cycle-Analysis

        There are also a range of other alternatives to single-use plastic. In your excellent article you support making “producers responsible for the entire life cycle of their products”. Please accept that many are doing exactly that with more transparency than ever in a very difficult market.

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        • Thank you Elaine. With all due respect, like it happens with anything, some bioplastics manufacturers are really concerned with sustainability, and some are not. Bioplastic does not even mean biodegradable plastic for many big manufacturers and packagers out there. Below are some links to studies and articles that support my words above regarding bioplastics potentially being more polluting than oil based platics.

          Ultimately the big question is whether it is worth it to take biomass, ship it, polymerize it -with whatever chemicals additives-, ship the resin, shape it into whatever object, ship it again, etc, etc, just so that someone somewhere can use a bioplastic stirrer for their Starbucks coffee for 5 seconds? Or drink a glass of water with a disposable bioplastic straw for 5 minutes?

          This seems to me like taxing the planet so that a broken system of throwaway objects can live on…. While consciously and ethically produced bioplastics certainly have a role to play, even those cannot mend an unsustainable, broken system of throwaway living. Thank you.

          http://www.environmentalleader.com/2010/10/22/biopolymers-are-dirtier-to-produce-than-oil-based-polymers-say-researchers/

          http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1983894,00.html

          http://www.earthtimes.org/scitech/bioplastic-no-saving-grace/43/

          Reply
  2. While I agree with all you say Manuel, especially about having to start with source reduction, I also recall that anti-litter commercial of the 1960s that starred Indian actor Ironhorse Cody with a tear streaming down his cheek. The ‘Keep America Beautiful’ campaign that was a part of was actually funded by can and glass producers (and the then small plastic container sector) to try and stem recycling fees by shifting the blame to public “litter-bugs.” In fact the ad was so good it helped inspire the environmental activism of the 1970s. Maybe, while not realistic, all the media focus on plastic sucking robots heading out to sea will help increase public awareness of the real problem of plastic ocean pollution in a way that saner voices like yours ultimately prevail. Call me a hard-eyed optimist. Hope to see you at the Blue Vision Summit in DC this spring when we try and force right-wing pols and oil industry apologists into doing the right thing for the blue in our red, white and blue.

    Reply
    • Great feedback David. I hope you are right! I also see the potential value of the media buzz, but at the same time I am aware that the skewed framing, messaging and stories are designed to disarm the core call to action and maintain the status quo. Yes! I would love to be at the Blue Vision Summit. Thank you for the amazing work you do! Onward!

      Reply
    • Please try not to polarize and demonize. There is no left or right as I see it in habits or solutions. We are all addicted to plastic, and profits. How many libs are green-washing like crazy? Thank you, PPC, for all you do to help!

      Reply
    • Writing as one of the inducers of the pollution – being a designer of consumer products and packaging – I have gone round this loop a few thousand times. My walk (yes, walk) to work in the morning, with views out across Aucklands magnificent harbours, depresses me every time. Every scrap of garbage on the roadside is heading straight into a turtles gut, or a birds crop, or eventually to clog up a bivalves funnel.
      Changing behaviours is the obvious target – but we have a poor record on this front and it’s a slow process. Responsibility lying with the source is laudible, but seems impractical for the most important waste sector, packaging.
      How about materials that destroy themselves when certain trigger points are met? I run a product development incubator that is launching technologies that change their markets – including a grid technology that will result in a sizable CO2 emmissions reduction. We are raising funding right now, for a research project to create a range of plastic additives that will trigger rapid breakdown, once the well defined trigger points are reached – salt and UV suggests seaborne, methane suggests landfill etc.
      This isn’t meant to substitute for altering behavours – but I don’t think we can wait for people to see the value in behaving differently. By the time we adapt, it’ll be sooo much harder to fix the problem.

      Reply
    • You are right about the industry’s apologists. If any of you faux green people are out there listening, the 21st century is the time to do it right. Are you personally acting in good faith when you make your career with one of those companies that make money off pollution cleanup? Time to take a stand and your ambivalence will disappear.

      Reply
  3. Dear sir,
    Reading your article makes me aware of what is really going on. So far so good. However I suggest instead of cutting down innitiatives other than the one you have it wouldbe better to embrace those innitiatives. This for the simple rason awareness does not remove pollution already there and will only reduce future plastic pollution. Related to funding and operating machines for clean up your statements create the opening. 2 miljion bottles each 5 minutes at 5% of the total: this means 11,52 miljard bottles worldwide at 100%. Use your huge organisation to get a tax of 1 cent per bottle and see how costs of development and operation can be covered. On top reselling or re-usage of plastic will help funding. It would be great to discuss with you about collaboration for effective action + awareness will add more value than each one on its own.
    Unite!
    Best regards
    Bob

    Reply
    • Thank you Bob. Assuming that your plan for funding worked.. What about the rest of the issues discussed above ? –such as simply feasability, efficacity, colateral damage, etc? I (and investors) would be open to this if anyone had managed to clean a small area effectively as a proof of concept. That is step one in any investment in new technology: there has to be proof that it may work. Thank you

      Reply
  4. Thanks Manuel,

    Thanks for this great article! Exactly my words. I’m from the Netherlands and right now twitter and Facebook here in the Netherlands explodes with “Student Delft (dutch city) came up with doable solution Plastic Soup”.
    I try to respond to every tweet with exactly the same statement: “please close the faucet before you start to mop the floor”. But the tweets and Facebook-posts are almost as abundant as the plastic soup itself. (Say ‘Hi’ to Daniella from me, we met in Tallinn)

    Peter.

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  5. Well, I guess we – everybody living in the modern and “rich” civilization – are responsible for our way of consumption. What we buy and support makes the big different for the future of this earth. And at the end we must learn to understand that we also pollute ourself beside the hole environment like animals, plants, waters, airs … There’s a lot of work to do all over. And to get this plastics out of the seas seems to me to be one of the big priorities too as well as to protect the rest of the rainforests on this planet and, and, and … sometimes it makes me very sad that we are in this situations and circumstances of not seeing or knowing … It’s time to learn from our misstakes and see what a gift this world is to use and everything that is … (sorry for my English – I’m Swiss :-)). Thank’s for your work everybody! Best wishes, Sabrina

    Reply
  6. We need to end our love affair with disposable.. Biodegradable plastics are not a solution (I may reconsider that position when the CEO of a bioplastics company will sit down to eat a meal of their product;)

    Lets expand on the refillable bottling systems as used in Germany.. imagine a GLOBAL standard on reusable packaging, packaging for all classes of products with generous refund systems to ensure effective recovery.

    We have the logistic capability to redistribute these containers to where they are needed.

    Creating a standard for reusable packaging will create local jobs, decentralize production, and use less energy and raw materials and end the packaging industries contribution to plastic pollution.

    Reusable design is the future.

    Thoughts?

    Reply
  7. While I agree that these devices may not be the full solution to ending plastic pollution, but don’t you think it’s important that they create hope?

    We are facing a future which we have tainted our own support system, and we are only now waking up to this terrible truth. The plastic pollution in our water systems is horrible and sad, and can easily be ignored by most people if the problem seems too big, or not fixable. Why dismiss an act of ingenuity so quickly before even giving it a chance?

    Any act of societal change takes many small steps. Every small contribution adds up, and slowly, solutions evolve. The reason these concepts are important is that they show that society cares, and are finally considering the problem.

    These innovators are contributing new technology to the ocean clean up process. They are able to do so because they learned about the problem from people like you, and were inspired.

    As a leader of change, I am surprised and disappointed that you would criticize the people who are so keen to help you tackle this enormous, multi-faceted problem, especially since the Plastics Pollution Coalition supports innovation in other realms. We’re all in this together, let’s act like it!

    Reply
    • Hope based on fantasy or on reality? Innovation does not equate fantasy. All the post is asking for is minimun competence of the proposed solution, given the reality of the problem. Any suggested solution should be able to withstand minimum scrutiny, wouldn’t you think? Otherwise what is the point? Should we also accept as valid solutions or sources of hope that aliens come down and clean up the mess for us, of that prayer makes it go away? Thank you.

      Reply
  8. There is one way to do this, and that is for governments to put a tax on plastics. The more expensive plastic is, the less people will be willing to use them and throw them away. Also, it will become profitable to recycle plastic. And even use machines to take the plastic out of the ocean. Governments are always looking for reasons to tax us, so a plastic tax should appeal to them.

    Reply
    • Well here in Sweden it is a profitable biz to recicle plastic, plastic bottles have what we call “pant” that means we get money back when we return the bottles to the shop.
      However, I see more and more plastic debris all over.
      It’s the education of the people that is the most important issue to clean our planet.
      The latest around here in debris is the biodegradable dog litter bags, people pick up the dogs excrements and than toss everything in to a near by bush…. So now you see these “biodegradable” plastic bags everywhere.
      Education, that whats should get viral!

      Of course that a way to pick up all the floating debris existing now would be great, but very difficult to achieve.

      And then there the way we think, in my youth, I am 42, my mother would make me take my shoes of, clean after myself around the house and other things. Mostly because it took her so long time to do a decent cleaning of the house.
      In our days we have so many helping devices and products that we don’t really give a big issue to cleaning days and we actually got used to have a bit of “debris” in our homes.
      We accept that there is more dust around because we can clean it faster.

      Is that what we expect? That somebody, somehow going to clean it up for us so we don’t need to care?

      Like I said before: Education!

      Reply
  9. Hola Manuel-
    Thank you for this excellent article. Inaction and apathy are our worst enemies. As you say “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.”
    We can’t seem to wake up. And this bad habit is spreading all over the world like fire.
    It’s hard to see the end of plastic during my lifetime when i see kids throwing away their plastic lunch on the sidewalk.
    Thank you for all the work you do.

    Reply
  10. Excellent review Manuel.

    I lightly brushed the legal and moral hazard issues of the project, here:Why Does This Invention Keep Popping Up?.

    Wish I had read this post before hand, I would have discussed the solutions more in depth and posted those great links.

    Great piece.

    Reply
  11. Ok, so you’ve made a point.
    What do you propose we do – yes, control plastics at the source – but WHAT ARE YOUR recommendations and ACTIONS to make this a definite reality??

    THIS IS part of a Real Solution to the massive issues that needs to be addressed from ALL angles.
    WE Humans cannot idly stand by and say that it’s all too late, too big, too hard.
    Boyan Slat has created a Real Solution – so please support him.

    http://www.facebook.com/TheOceanCleanup

    Reply
    • There are dozens of real solutions which are being implemented worldwide with measurable results to stop plastic pollution at source. These include extended producer responsibility laws, banning or taxing the most polluting types of plastics, voluntary reductions, reusable packaging, etc. Follow the links at the end of the post to learn more.

      I’m still waiting for Mr Slat or anyone else to answer the basic questions outlined above. That would be the first step. The second would be to test a prototype and measure the results. After that one could start speaking of a “real” solution. Thank you

      Reply
      • Excellent article and commentary. Much appreciated, Manuel!
        If any invention or product serves to justify continued societal addiction to throwaway plastic, it’s just more substance abuse.
        “We will never recycle our way out of this mess.” from my mentor Captain Charles Moore

        Reply
    • Boyan Slat has created nothing! For one thing, it’s only a concept, not even a design. For another, it disobeys the laws of physics. The booms won’t make plastic accumulate at the collectors, just as spinning a glass doesn’t make a particle floating in it come closer to you.

      The booms are completely worthless. Separating biological material from plastic without damaging it seems very unlikely in a centrifuge and one plastic bag would foul the whole unit. It will never work – it’s contrary to the laws of physics.

      Every bit of support provided to Boyan Slat is support not given to really solving the problem. It is tantamount to environmental vandalism, so I don’t think you should be quite so dogmatic.

      Reply
    • Julia, as you can see in the main image for this article; the project you are referring to is in it (top-left). So it appears to be. Also this article was published on 27 March 2013, so this project might even have been the reason for writing this. I have however donated 100$ to that project. Perhaps this one will fail, but it will regardless be a good way for people to learn about what we can and cannot do. Obviously it would be best if there would be no pollution, but this seems more unachievable to me to be honest. In the long run you might even have businesses competing to collect reusable rubbish and possibly deploy machine to landfills to separate and collect waste there.

      Reply
  12. I think that the concept is good, but the locations are wrong.

    Just as with the human-touched water entering the oceans, very little plastic is dumped *directly* into the sea (relatively). It comes down the rivers, tributaries and so on. I have witnessed many accidental booms build against bridges and docks where debris gathers.

    Surely, a model of the dynamic flow of water in smaller and larger rivers as they flow towards the sea would allow the various choke points and natural settling points to be mapped – and deploy your robot-booms there.

    It’s a middle ground which addresses some of your concerns – it’s much smaller scale, as it would be done river by river, so easy to proof-of-concept and get rolling. It addresses the problem where it’s more concentrated on a ppm level, so more likely to catch a high percentage of debris – and compared to the ocean, rivers are millpond flat.

    So – primary focus is on reduction and reccycling at point of use so things don’t enter the waterways to start with,but no head in the sand about doing something once it’s there…

    Reply
  13. Great article Manuel. But I don’t see solution as an evil word. I accept what you say, that we have to reduce and stop the productionof plastics and all other rubbish for that matter. But surely, whilst we are working on achieving that, we need to look at far better rubbish collection and recyling to try to claw back the damage that has already been done.

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  14. Its interesting reading this, but Ive always thought that the biggest polluters of rubbish are the third world countries as they dont have the Law or technology to get rid of their rubbish…I constantly see images on the computer of waterways beaches seas being hevily polluted with rubbish and Im horrified everytime I look at these images..How can this be fixed in these countries?? Also the realms of nature dont help either like the Japan Tsanami which was very much devastating both land and sea, millions of tons of everything ended up being washed away into the sea. We need to keep thinking and discussing options for this massive problem..

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  15. OK, let’s be real. Manuel Maqueda is 100% correct in saying that ocean plastic cleaning machines are not a genuine answer to such a vast global pollution problem. Anybody who believes you can effectively ‘sweep’ plastic particles from our ‘waterworld’, remembering that earth’s surface is 70% ocean, may as well believe in the tooth fairy.. basically any attempts to do so could look good for the tv cameras (and investors pocket depths into such ventures).. by showing a few piles of plastic collected.. but the genuine result would be a miniscule percentage of total ocean plastic collected. So, if you want to build an ocean plastic cleaning machine as a get rich quick scheme, you could be on the right track.

    If you want to actually do something genuine to fix the problem.. get rid of plastic at the source. And as for educating people on not using plastic, well you can also put that idea somewhere close to the plastic cleaning machine. As long as companies continue to produce plastic products, people will purchase and use them. To understand how to fix a global problem, you need to understand the psychology of human nature. Materialism has basically created our global pollution issues. And why have we become so programmed to live in a throwaway society?.. many without even considering the planet in our daily actions? Because *cough* the greed at the top has created it. Did John D Rockefeller consider the oceans when he created his Standard Oil Empire? Just like most of us, he was concerned about his own success first, and deal with any problems you may encounter later. So you either get governments to make major global changes to how and what we produce / sell / consume, and how to do so effectively is another whole debate, or we all just continue as we are.. singing ‘I’m a material girl’ (or boy), while drinking evian and hope for the best. But the people persuade governments into action right? And didn’t i just say above they’ve been programmed to consume, and in turn pollute? So, there you have it. Maybe a meteor wipes out 3/4 of our population.. and then we’ll reduce 3/4 of our pollution, leaving earth sustainable.. until next time in the future when he hit 8 billion…. when a meteor will save us over again. Maybe im being sarcastic, or maybe i believe that if humans were actually capable of genuinely putting the planet before their own greed, our oceans wouldn’t currently be full of plastic.. with another group of humans yet again scrambling to design ocean hoovers. Why are they attempting such a design again? To fix our oceans, right? Has nothing to do with purchasing the new Lamborghini they have their eye on, all whilst ‘helping the environment’. Now if you’ll excuse me, i have a fish to fry. Wish me luck that it didn’t get it’s nutrient intake from the GE nuclear reactors at Fukushima. Maybe i’ll go for a vegetable instead.. one from my own backyard, of course.

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  16. It’s a good point, I can’t deny that. While we may have some use for these “crazy plastic cleaning machines”, I do believe that we should also be able to take some time and look at the source of the problem. That fact that we’re using durable plastic for things that are used and disposed of after shorts periods of time is definitely a problem we music figure out.

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  17. Hi Manuel, thanks for your article and efforts in explaining the more and the less realistic solutions to the problem of plastic marine debris.

    As a German freelance journalist I have also been looking at this problem and possible solutions for a while, starting with a visit to Kamilo Beach and the International Pacific Research Center in Hawai’i.

    Bioplastics seemed a very interesting and promising solution, so I visited bioplastic researchers and manufacturers here in Germany – but came to the same conclusion you come to. The biodegradable polymers which are available today are no real solution for plastic trash in the marine environment. If called “bio-degradable”, they usually need to be treated in specialized industrial composting plants to dissolve (which up to now mostly refuse to process them). The conditions there are completely different from marine or other natural environments. Because of the overall footprint of bioplastics, the German environment agency Umweltbundesamt has concluded bioplastics are not environmentally advantageous to classic polymers.

    Plus, the trend in the bioplastics industry is actually moving away from biodegradable towards biobased, non-degradable plastics.

    It is absolutely fascinating to see how more and more people are concerned about the issue and come up with interesting and creative “solutions” – each from they own professional angle. Besides Slat’s platforms, many other concepts circulate the web and media, such as the student contribution to a science competition proposing creating micro-organisms who clean up the trash, or the idea of a Dutch architect to turn the trash into an inhabitable island (the “island of trash” is already sort of a meme in this discourse).

    But after talking to marine biologists and environmental chemists, and looking at how immature many of these projects are, plus how they do or do not fit the realities described by people who know the oceans well, it seems that it’s much easier for humankind to drive robot cars on Mars, than to get the trash out of the oceans, once it’s there. “It’s entropy”, an environmental chemist explained to me.

    The good old strategies, to stop the problem at the source, are less sexy, but more likely to have an impact: To refuse, reduce, reuse and – last option – to effectively and sustainably recycle. At the moment it seems we cannot hope for new wondrous bioplastic materials or these exciting looking machines and drones to solve the issue for us.

    We don’t even really know how much we’ve put in so far.

    The number of 6,4 million tons is frequently cited. But looking at the source, it’s no viable number: It was published in a 1975 study by the National Academy of Sciences, and the sources it draws from are even older. Back then, much less plastic was used and produced. And the figure does not refer to plastic only, but summarizes a variety of materials which entered the sea via ships.

    As GESAMP has summarized:

    “Our knowledge of the possible quantity of marine litter entering the seas and oceans still relies too heavily estimates such as the US National Academy of Sciences (1975) value of 6.4 million metric tonnes of marine litter per year. This number is compiled exclusively from maritime sources, i.e. “litter generated in the oceans”, such as by shipping, fishing and the military transport and does not include landbased sources.”

    http://www.gesamp.org/data/gesamp/files/media/Publications/Reports_and_studies_82/gallery_1510/object_1670_large.pdf (page 15)

    Here is the link to the original publication (see 405 ff. and page 422):

    http://books.google.de/books?ei=c7RAUajHKs3U0gHG74D4Cw&id=eicQOgkswusC&dq=assessing+ocean+pollutants&jtp=405#v=onepage&q=assessing%20ocean%20pollutants&f=false

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    • Anja, it is an honor to have your comment here, which is a fantastic article in itself. Thank you for this great contribution, and for the excellent work you do. Onward!

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  18. What about the approach of zero waste home? I know this is only an individual level BUT if we can do it on an individual level then we can challenge the corporates. I’ve added my blog site, as I highlighted the issue of waste following a film I watched called wasteland….. I’m changing and I’m trying to get others to come along with me. Will you?

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    • Claire, that sounds really sensible. There is not a single way to stop plastic pollution at source, but many, and starting at home is a very important and necessary piece of the puzzle. It also helps us understand the obstacles and the ways to innovate around them. Thank you very much for posting your comment and link to your blog. Onward!

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  19. Did anyone here ever consider that the possibility of success of a global waste reduction scheme is even thinner than the Dutch boy wonders plan? Do you really think 5 billion emerging market consumers will go for zero waste? Eco-friendly packaging? I hope you see the even greater fallacy in this than in the plan of Boyan Slat, which, btw, makes me think very much of this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FtAiVv9caJ0 around since the 1970s.

    Reply
    • Actually there is ample evidence of the effectiveness of waste reduction plans. Too many examples to mention, but here’s just one: in March of 2002, Republic of Ireland became the first European country to introduce a plastic bag fee, which resulted in a 90% drop in consumption, and approximately 1 billion fewer bags were consumed annually, from 1.2 billion to 230 million per year. Plastic bag litter was been dramatically reduced.

      For a full list of countries that have taken waste reduction measures you can visit: http://www.chicobag.com/track-movement That’s just for bags. Styrene cups, single use bottles and other single use plastics have been banned or taxed in other places as well. All implementations have data that demonstrates success.

      Reply
  20. What was wrong with glass other than the abundance of broken glass found around the neighborhood?

    Reply

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