The Dream of Scooping Plastic From the Ocean Is Still Alive — and Problematic

The Dream of Scooping Plastic From the Ocean Is Still Alive — and Problematic

This week, one of the world’s most-watched plastic clean-up projects will announce victory. The Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit that has set out to solve the huge problem of plastics in the ocean, will hold a press event Wednesday where it will review the success of its latest system. The group has already said the contraption cleaned 9,072 kg of trash out of the ocean on its latest mission and released dramatic footage of mounds of trash being pulled out of the ocean in a huge net.

“The day has come to celebrate the beginning of the end of the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” the organisation wrote on its website announcing Wednesday’s event.

But with all that amazing capacity to scoop trash comes a whole lot of baggage: questions about the system’s impact on ecosystems, a history of aggressive fundraising for expensive failures, and bigger conversations about what kinds of solutions we should be funding to fix the world’s plastic crisis in the first place.

The Ocean Cleanup founder Boyan Slat made headlines in 2012 when, at age 18, he gave a TEDx Talk where he told a rapt audience that he’d figured out how to use technology to help passively clean the oceans of plastic. The revelation, he said, came after a scuba diving trip where he was shocked at the amount of plastic in the oceans. The video went viral, and soon the Dutch teenager had funding offers pouring in, aided by a barrage of high-profile media and celebrity support The United Nations even awarded Slat with its Champion of the Earth award, what the organisation calls its “highest environmental honour.” 

The initial design Slat pitched in his TEDx Talk — large, vertically-anchored booms that passively funneled trash upwards into a collection area — was criticised by some ocean scientists. Forging ahead regardless, the Ocean Cleanup tested a prototype in 2016, which was promptly ripped apart by the water. Undeterred, the group pulled in $US40 (AU$54) million from foundations, online donations, and high-profile technocrats like Salesforce founder Marc Benioff and Palantir founder Peter Thiel. (Disclosure: Thiel secretly bankrolled a lawsuit that bankrupted Gizmodo’s former parent company, Gawker Media.) The group used that to launch an unmanned U-shaped boom dubbed System 001 in 2018 to see if it could be deployed to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Scientists were sceptical of that version too, and it turns out with good reason; that $US20 (AU$27)-million system also failed.

This leads us to the Ocean Cleanup’s latest setup, which they call System 002 (or “Jenny”). It is a similar concept to the model tested in 2018, featuring a U-shaped boom that floats along the water, passively collecting plastic as it goes, with an attached underwater camera to make sure marine life doesn’t get ensnared. This system, however, is not autonomous, but pulled by Maersk ships — which have a pretty hefty carbon footprint. (The Ocean Cleanup has said it’s looking into buying carbon offsets for the systems.)

“They spent I don’t know how many tens of millions of dollars to invent fishing,” said Miriam Goldstein, the director of ocean policy at the Centre for American Progress, who holds a Ph.D. in biological oceanography. The System 002, Goldstein said, is “a net dragged between two boats. We have a name for a net dragged between two boats, and that’s trawl fishing. Like, yeah, you’re going to collect stuff if you drag a net behind a boat. I’m sure they’re collecting trash.”

Ahead of the publication of this article, Earther sent several questions about System 002 and some of the ecological concerns, mentioning that we’d been talking with marine biologists who had critiques of the project. A press person for the organisation told us that they did not have time to answer the questions ahead of the Wednesday announcement. The press person also asked us to name which marine biologists we’d been speaking with.

“I​​n the past we had similar questions but all originated from the same source,” they said in response to my email. (To be clear, many scientists have criticised the project for various reasons.)

One of our main questions was about the impact that the passive collection technology could have on the creatures that thrive at the surface of the Pacific, an assemblage known as the neuston. There, a network of snails, crabs, sea dragons, jellyfish, and other colourful creatures form what are the coral reefs of the ocean’s surface. Those creatures often flock to plastic trash and create a surprisingly lively ecosystem.

Yet the neuston as a whole has been scantly studied. What scientists have found, though, indicates it could play an important role in the ocean. Research indicates that the neuston creates important ecological connections between various different parts of the ocean as it serves as a food web and habitat for various species. For instance, the neuston is home to the main source of food for endangered creatures like loggerhead turtles and provides nursery habitat for young fish species, including Atlantic cod and salmon.

Rebecca Helm, a jellyfish expert and an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, pointed out that other organisations have successfully removed tens of thousands of pounds of plastic from garbage patches using more manual (albeit less flashy) methods that don’t disturb ecosystems. More research on ocean surface ecosystems, she said, is needed before we deploy such disruptive technologies like the one the Ocean Cleanup is proposing.

“We know virtually nothing about the ecology of ‘garbage patches,’” she said over Twitter DM. “These remote places are poorly studied, and massively expensive to clean. We don’t even know what the impact of plastic is on this ecosystem (but we know it’s mixed, some species may tolerate it, some may be harmed, some may actually benefit). It’s important to understand a problem before you try to ‘fix’ it, and the reality is, from an ecological perspective, we don’t really understand the problem.”

Helm has publicly criticised the Ocean Cleanup project for years, including in a 2019 Atlantic article where she claimed the project could “destroy” much of the world’s neuston ecosystems. In response to her and others’ criticisms, the Ocean Cleanup sponsored a peer-reviewed study on the link between the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and neuston populations, tentatively contradicting some of Helm’s claims but concluding that more observational data — such as what can be gathered from System 002 missions — on neuston populations is needed.

In addition to the study, the Ocean Cleanup’s own ecological impact assessment for System 002 has pretty astonishing numbers of neuston-related bycatch included. By the company’s own accounting, System 002 could accidentally snare a minimum of tens of thousands of animals each day, from tiny crustaceans and jellyfish up through larger fish, squid, and crabs, even with the system travelling at its lowest speed. That would raise major concerns on its own. (For its part, the Ocean Cleanup published a rebuttal to Helm’s piece and quoted its scientific advisory board member and University of Vienna oceanographer Gerhard Herndl, who said the group’s impact would be relatively small and that “Most plankton and neuston organisms are adapted to high loss rates as they are washed ashore with every wave hitting the shores.”) Slat has said he wants to scale up to 10 even bigger systems running continuously for five years to reach the goal of getting 50% of the trash out of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

“We already know we can catch things in nets,” Goldstein said. “The question is, what is the tradeoff of catching things in nets? What else are you catching that you don’t mean to be catching? That is the number one issue with industrial fishing. The same question applies here: How much plastic are they catching for the amount of time and the fossil fuels that they are burning, and what else are they catching? There’s no yes or no answer to whether this is good or bad — it’s just a benefit-risk tradeoff.”

Despite the sustained criticisms and multiple, high-profile failures, there’s something very Silicon Valley and shiny about the appeal of the Ocean Cleanup proposal; if we just get the tech right, we could make a good portion of junk in the oceans disappear in a snap. Peeping Slat’s mentions on Twitter is a strange exercise in watching high-profile people get excited about just that type of solution; two tech executives and the executive director of the charitable foundation linked to the Emmys tweeted that they’d help Slat fundraise after he said “funding would be a bottleneck” for building an even bigger plastic scooping system, modelling, and environmental impact monitoring last week.

But even if one decides the benefits of manually scooping plastic out of the ocean outweigh the potential ecological downsides, there’s also the larger question of what kind of good $US40 (AU$54) million and the prospect of even widespread funding could do in terms of addressing the plastic crisis. Some experts, like Goldstein, don’t believe it’s technologically feasible to get all the world’s trash out of the ocean. Removing 9,072 kg of plastic sounds impressive, but the world dumps 8 billion kilogramsof plastic into the ocean every single year.

Ignoring that while scooping up a fraction of plastic already in the sea can give corporations cover to keep producing more trash. Coca-Cola, one of the world’s biggest producers of plastic waste, has partnered with the Ocean Cleanup on some of its initiatives. Last year, despite making promises on recycling, the company said it wouldn’t stop producing single-use plastic. Coca-Cola has also been active behind the scenes in squelching initiatives like bottle bills and container deposit laws that would hold the company accountable for some of its trash. Ending the production and proliferation of single-use plastic — which Coca-Cola is in a good position to lead the way on — would go a lot further in protecting the ocean even if it would affect the company’s bottom line and be a lot less flashy.

It could be much more worth a dynamic spokesperson like Slat’s while to fundraise for low-cost, high-impact beach cleanups, or focus on preventing the plastic from entering the ocean at all. Targeting the mouths of rivers that are chock full of plastic that feed into the sea would be one place to start, something the Ocean Cleanup has started doing. But so, too, would be fighting for legislation that prevents plastic, particularly single-use plastic, from being produced in the first place. There have already been a number of local fights (and wins) in that arena. An increasing number of advocates are also pushing back against the myth that end-users should be held responsible for recycling when companies keep foisting plastic on us.

Legislation to prevent dumping fishing gear, which makes up a big portion of trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and is especially dangerous to wildlife, would also go a long way toward stopping the problem at its source. But as long as public attention and money are focused on an expensive tech dream, companies and regulators can keep putting off meaningful reforms.

“Cleaning the Garbage Patches is like trying to heal a wound by cleaning blood off the floor,” said Helm. “Plastic is haemorrhaging from land, from fishing gear disposal, container spills, these are the issues we need to fight. Otherwise, we’ll be cleaning forever, while the world keeps bleeding out.”

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