Skepticism

UPDATE! Mr. Beast’s #TeamSeas Fans are VERY Angry I Criticized Ocean Cleanup

This post contains a video, which you can also view here. To support more videos like this, head to patreon.com/rebecca!

Recently I happened to check out the latest comments on my videos, because honestly life has just been too great for me and I deserve to be taken down a peg. And I noticed that for some reason there was a noticeable uptick in extremely mangry comments, the bulk of them left in response to a video I posted nearly three years ago in which I detailed scientists’ criticisms of Boyan Slat’s Ocean Cleanup project.

It was tough to figure out what was going on at first, because the average comment read something like “You are right. It is much more meaningful and usefull avoiding schools every friday to fakely rioting in the streets, screaming “how dare you”, asking for quitting the sytem that feeds and pays you” and “What a Nasty talk, find something better to do in life, people like You makes  this world worst” and “U look like boyan is ur ex and he slept qith u but broke up like tf girl u thinking.”

But then I saw comments like “Mr Beast: sight bet,” and while I still have no idea what that means, I do know that “Mr. Beast” is some type of social media influencer. A quick Google later, I discovered that several YouTubers, including Mr. Beast and Mark Rober, pledged to get their followers to donate $30 million, half of which would go to the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy and the other half would go to Ocean Cleanup.

So I have no idea if Mr. Beast mentioned my video or what, but I guess that’s where all the manger came from that led to comments like “Entitled white woman. See how it feels to be generalised? Shut the fuck up and appreciate a genius’ work” and “Female detected Opinion rejected.” I guess that’s just Mr. Beast’s audience? But I was still confused by comments like “This aged like milk” and “I wonder how she feels now” — It’s been three years since I’ve thought about Ocean Cleanup so I figured, “Huh, maybe they finally got it working?” So I looked into it to see what they’ve been up to for the past few years and spoiler alert: they did not, in fact, finally get it working. It’s just that some YouTubers got their audience of small male children to give money to a particular cause, which led those children to assume the cause must be good.

Here’s the overview of all of this: back in 2016, a teenager named Boyan Slat delivered a TED talk about an invention he thought up that would be a floating barrier that sweeps through the ocean picking up plastics. Scientists praised his initiative but offered constructive feedback on why his invention wouldn’t work. The top reasons were:

  1. The overwhelming bulk of ocean plastic is too small and too deep to be picked up by the proposed barrier. 70% sits on the ocean floor.
  2. The amount of plastic the project hoped to remove in several years is insignificant compared to the 17.6 billion pounds, or 8 million metric tonnes, we humans plan to dump into the ocean every single year. That’s 48,219,178 pounds of plastic every day, which is about 2 million pounds an hour. To put that in perspective, the 30 million pounds that #TeamSeas hopes to collect in three years will take care of about 15 hours worth of trash. Like I stated in a previous video, you don’t worry about bailing out your lifeboat with a teaspoon before you’ve plugged the giant hole gushing water inside.
  3. Ocean Cleanup didn’t really bother to get the science right when determining how the system would impact the myriad species currently living in and around the areas it would be deployed.
  4. The proposed design wasn’t stress-tested for real world conditions, leading many scientists to point out that the barrier would likely break immediately and become part of the immense amount of useless trash in the ocean.

Slat saw these objections and decided to simply ignore them. And wouldn’t you know it, immediately after launch in 2019 the barrier broke immediately and became part of the immense amount of useless trash in the ocean.

That’s when I made my last video on this topic. So since then, Slat finally agreed with the experts that his barrier was not up for the job and he set about inventing a NEW cleanup system. The system he invented is two fossil fuel-powered boats dragging a net between them. For the six centuries leading up to Slat inventing it, this was known as trawling. Trawling is banned or heavily regulated in most developed countries because it’s kind of a giant disaster, thanks in part to “bycatch,” ocean-dwelling species that are caught and killed accidentally.

Slat also heard the criticism that a much more efficient way to begin cleaning up the ocean would be to stop those 8 million metric tonnes of plastic before they get into the ocean. Scientists pointed out that the usual route is via our polluted rivers, which is why there’s such near-universal approval of things like Mr. Trash Wheel, which was invented in 2008 by John Kellett to prevent trash from falling into Baltimore Harbor. Unfortunately for Mr. Kellett his name shall be lost to time, because now, a decade later, Boyan Slat has invented Mr. Trash Wheel. I mean yes, he will admit that his “Interceptor” has the same “function” as Mr. Trash Wheel, but don’t expect him to come out and say “oh yeah, it’s the exact same thing: a conveyor belt that grabs trash.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love that some of the millions of dollars Slat has collected in donations will go to an actual useful intervention and I’m glad that #TeamSeas has chosen to only donate money toward the river interceptors and not toward the OceanCleanup trawler. I assume they’ve seen the criticisms of it and didn’t want to touch it with a ten foot pole.

That’s why it’s important for these criticisms to get attention whenever OceanCleanup is in the news. Think of the millions of dollars and the insane amount of energy (and fossil fuels) Slat wasted on his initial design that immediately became ocean trash for the exact reasons scientists told him for years leading up to the launch, and think of how much trash would have been stopped from entering the ocean if that money had been spent on interceptors at the outset.

I am in the ocean constantly, like as often as possible, several times a week. I love it deeply and I can never imagine living inland away from it. A few months ago I was out surfing, and as I sat on my board waiting for a wave, I was looking at all these jellyfish all around me. (Jellyfish, by the way, that shouldn’t be there but were because of rising ocean temperatures.) I spotted a huge jellyfish and went to take a closer look and realized it was actually a big ziplock bag. So I tied it to my surfboard leash and went back to looking for a wave. That’s when I saw, bopping towards me, a used plastic K-cup with coffee grounds still inside.

I grabbed that, too, and then paddled in to shore. I surf in the middle of nowhere so I wasn’t sure what to do with the trash until it was time to go home. But then I saw two women walking their dogs down the beach. I felt weird about it but I decided to ask them if they wouldn’t mind carrying the trash to a trashcan. That’s when one of the women took off her backpack and unzipped it, showing me a load of trash inside. She told me they walk their dogs on the beach every morning, and every morning they collect whatever random litter they find.

I actually ran into them again just last week — I was about to paddle out and one asked me if a random flipper nearby was mine (it was not). I was so delighted to see them still at it, and we all thanked each other for continuing to keep our beaches clean. Seeing them and knowing they’re out there every day chipping in makes me feel so much better about humanity.

Ocean Conservancy is the other nonprofit #TeamSeas is donating to, and they oversee an international effort to get volunteers to do beach cleanups. I think they’re great and I highly recommend that you participate in beach cleanups whenever you can.

“But Rebecca,” you might say, “you JUST said that we’re putting BILLIONS of pounds of plastic into the ocean every year. Surely a handful of volunteers collecting trash a few times a year can’t put a dent in that!”

And no, it can’t! But it’s still worth it. I point this out because a lot of the mangry comments on my last video said some form of “Well at least Ocean Cleanup is SOMETHING.” Here’s the difference: trawling a net through the ocean might pick up some plastic, but it also burns a ton of fossil fuels and disrupts the lives of the animals in the ocean. A beach cleanup does none of that. A beach cleanup removes litter BEFORE it can get (back) into the ocean, and research shows that people who participate in cleanups feel more connected to the environment and are more likely to change their habits to be conservationists. A person might just donate money to a cause they’re told is good and then feel like they’ve done enough, but a person who shows up and cleans a beach of litter will take that experience home with them, causing them to think more about the problem and how we can fix it. Like, truly fix it.

River interceptors are a great start. Voting for politicians who will prioritize environmentalism is a great next step. And then, of course, we will need to continue to pressure those politicians to make the right call even if it goes against their financial interests. For instance, the fossil fuel industry sees the world shifting to alternative energy sources and they’re covering their bottom line by trying to TRIPLE their current production of single use plastics (which are 99% fossil fuel) for companies like Coca-Cola, the world’s largest producer of plastic pollution. Conservationists have begged Coca-Cola to stop marketing single-use plastic and instead invest in reusable or truly recyclable packaging, but that would cost the company a lot of money. So instead, Coca-Cola invests money in initiatives that won’t force them to stop producing millions of tons of waste. Initiatives like…ah, yes. Ocean Cleanup.

But I guess we can’t really have that conversation. Because on the one side we have scientists and activists pointing out science-based initiatives that can help stop the problem and calling for immediate systemic change to pressure large companies like Coca Cola and the fossil fuel industry to stop polluting our oceans, and on the other hand we have social media influencers sending their fans to call those critics “stupid man hating bitch(es).” Never change YouTube, never change.

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.

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