Will the Ocean Cleanup Project Clean Our Seas of Plastic?

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Sorta transcript:

A teenager came up with a plan to rid the ocean of the huge amount of plastic floating around in it, and everybody is super excited and giving him millions of dollars despite the fact that there’s probably not a chance in hell the plan is going to work. Get ready for some hardcore skeptic buzzkilling, you guys!

Boyan Slat is the name of the creative young go-getter, who is now 20 years old. He has proposed that we put a 6,500-foot long floating barrier in ocean tidal zones, which will catch bits of plastic as currents take them past. The barrier will be attached to the sea bed but will allow fish to move past.

It’s a lovely idea, but it is facing criticism from pretty much every field it touches on: marine biology, physics, and engineering to start. Drs. Kim Martini and Miriam Goldstein are two oceanographers who published an extremely detailed critical analysis of Ocean Cleanup’s feasibility study, and for the most part their points have gone unanswered for the past year while the organization continues toward a launch.

For instance, much of the feasibility study looked at a completely different ecosystem than where the first barrier is actually planned to be placed. That’s a huge problem when the organization is claiming to not accidentally catch and kill the populations that live near the surface.

There’s also the fact that the organization asserts that the majority of ocean plastic is in the first 3 meters of water, but the study they cite doesn’t actually probe below 5 meters, despite ample evidence suggesting that plastic mixes at lower depths. Also, the barrier wasn’t properly tested in real-world ocean environments. It was designed based on mean ocean current speeds, and not maximum speeds, leaving the very real potential that this barrier could almost immediately upon deployment turn into the largest piece of ocean garbage in the world. Irony!

Biologists like Andrew David Thaler have criticized the project for not taking into account the fact that the structure will essentially become a “Fish Aggregating Device”, basically an apartment complex for a variety of sea life. All large floating structures in the ocean attract prey species, which eventually attract predators, all of which will change migratory habits. Additionally, those species will now be exposed to a high density of plastic collected by the barrier.

So instead of getting excited about a project that not only won’t likely work but also may actually screw up fish populations and CONTRIBUTE to the amount of garbage in the water, let’s start talking real solutions. That means that first we have to stop putting all this plastic into the ocean. For a start, get your town to ban plastic bags! Doing so appears to significantly reduce the amount of plastic that even enters our water. Also, stop using soaps and toothpastes with microbeads, those little useless bits of plastic that exfoliate your skin and then go down the drain, never to be seen again, which couldn’t even be caught by the Ocean Cleanup project if it was working perfectly.

And then let’s talk large scale public works projects like installing screens that catch trash from our runoff before it enters the ocean.

And once we’re no longer dumping 8 million tons of plastic into the ocean every year, then we can talk about how to clean up what’s already in there.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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  1. I feel like your final thesis is a little unfair.

    That we reduce pollution production to zero before attempting to clean up isn’t necessarily going to make for the cheapest total reduction in ocean plastic levels. Just because I know I haven’t gotten 100% of my neighbors to not throw litter out of their car doesn’t mean I’m gonna give up on neighborhood cleanup day. Approaching from both sides is usually a good idea.

    The rest of the charges against this particular plan still stand. Not being appropriately tested for local wildlife, not being rated for actual conditions, using overly narrow data sources: those are all real problems. But I need to disagree with your final point.

  2. All excellent points. People get so excited about ways to solve major problems that won’t require them to change their day-to-day habits. Ikanread, of course, is right that there’s no reason not to try to do major ocean clean-up as well as reduce the amount of plastic we use (if, of course, the clean-up would actually work). But I suspect the mere idea of a post-consumer clean-up system reduces people’s individual efforts to avoid creating more garbage.

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