This post might be controversial, but sometimes you have to admit when you might have been a little bit… wrong? Anyway, five years ago, I wrote a pretty depressing blog post about why we cannot solve the problem of ocean plastic pollution by focusing on cleanup schemes.
2010- 2013: My Doubts
My point was that as long as we continue to consume vast amounts of disposable plastic, any effort at cleanup would be, to quote Captain Charles Moore, “like bailing water from a bathtub with the spigot still running.” So, in 2012, when I started hearing about a Dutch teenager who had designed an expensive contraption to clean up the gyre within 5 years, I dismissed the story as just one more distraction from the real issue. Here’s then 18-year old engineering student Boyan Slat at a TEDx event in Delft explaining his idea:
Since he first conceived the idea of a passive collection device into which ocean currents would deposit plastic debris without harming sea life, Boyan has determinedly pursued his plan, speaking to the media and meeting with scientists, investors, and activists. And most of the reaction from activists has been similar to what mine was: Stop wasting your time on this. We need to focus on reducing the amount of plastic consumed, not building expensive machines to clean up what’s already out there. Plus, your idea won’t even work.
2014: The Debate
Last summer, MarineDebris.Info organized an online panel discussion with Dr. Marcus Eriksen of 5Gyres (one of the ocean heroes profiled in my book Plastic-Free), Nick Mallos of the Trash Free Seas Program at Ocean Conservancy, and Boyan Slat of The Ocean Cleanup, to debate the feasibility of cleaning up ocean plastics. I was excited to hear this debate and to understand the science explaining why Boyan’s plan would not work.
Here are some highlights from the 86 minute debate:
Marcus says that prevention is the harder road, but it works and has long-term, lasting impacts.
Boyan agrees that prevention should come before cleanup. But he doesn’t believe that focusing on prevention precludes trying to develop new technologies.
Marcus points out that there’s a simpler way. Ocean plastic doesn’t just stay in one place. The gyres spit the plastic back out, and eventually, it washes ashore on islands such as Hawaii. (A phenomenon I witnessed first hand on a beach on Oahu.) Why spend so much money on a machine in the ocean when we could wait until the plastic reaches land and focus on less expensive beach cleanups instead?
Boyan counters that letting beaches become overwhelmed with plastic is not ideal for the real humans and animals who live in those places, not to mention damage to reefs. He’d rather create an “artificial island” in the ocean to do the same thing without ecological harm to coastal areas. He also notes that capturing the bigger pieces in the ocean prevents them from degrading into microplastics and becoming even harder to clean up.
Marcus mentions devices installed at the mouths of rivers that can prevent plastic from reaching the ocean. In fact, I saw one such device at the Baltimore Inner Harbor last year. The Inner Harbor Water Wheel is solar-powered and collects plastic trash long before it reaches the ocean.
Boyan mentions that river cleanup devices are also part of his solution but wonders how they are any different from ocean cleanup machines if the concern is about giving people the impression that the problem is solved and no personal action is necessary.
Marcus worries that if limited resources are directed towards technological solutions, less attention will be paid to changing the way products are produced and consumed. We’ll be less likely to hold companies and ourselves accountable.
But Boyan feels that all the media attention he’s been getting is a good way to draw attention to this issue: an issue that many people, surprisingly, are still unaware of. As a personal example, my TEDx talk from 2010 has received over 30,000 views. Boyan’s? 1,763,000. He’s reaching a lot more people, and hopefully influencing those people to think about plastic pollution.
So, after watching this debate last year, I actually felt less inclined to diss ocean cleanup efforts than I had in the past. But that was about all. (Click here to read a whole lot more about the actual project and download the feasibility study report.)
2015: The Interview
And then, several weeks ago, while attending Algalita’s Plastic Ocean Pollution Solutions Youth Summit in Southern California, I got a text message from Dianna Cohen of the Plastic Pollution Coalition (an organization that embraces advocacy groups like 5Gyres and Algalita as well as technological projects such as The Ocean Cleanup.) “I’m meeting Boyan Slat tonight at 8:30pm in town. Any chance you could stay one more night and return tomorrow? Join us. Meet him.”
Holy crap! Damn right I will. A chance to meet this guy in person and ask him all the questions I wanted? I totally rearranged my travel plans, even though it meant flying back the next morning super early and dragging myself and my suitcase straight to the office from the airport.
Over dinner, I asked him questions, took notes, and even debated him a bit. Dianna surreptitiously snapped photos.
So what do I think now?
I think he’s a smart kid. (Hey, I just turned 50 this year. I get to call him a kid even though he’s now technically an adult.) I am not an engineer, so I don’t know if his idea will work. He is an engineer, and he’s not entirely sure either. But he said a few things to me that made a lot of sense.
First, he told me how surprised he had been to receive such a negative response from activists who told him it couldn’t be done. So he searched the literature to read about ocean cleanup attempts that had failed, and he didn’t find any. He realized it hadn’t been done because the consensus was that it couldn’t be done. He wanted to at least try. And he said that in the worst case scenario, his efforts would add to the body of existing knowledge and increase awareness.
I expressed my concern that people who read about his plan will think that the plastic problem is solved and that therefore, they needn’t change their choices and behaviors. Boyan said that political processes and behavioral changes happen slowly. Technology is inherently neutral and can amplify human actions. He would be very worried if the fate of the ocean depended solely on the actions of 7 billion people.
But he’s right about that. To me, behavior change is crucial, but I’ve always admitted that it’s not enough. Solving the plastic problem is not an all or nothing proposition. There isn’t just one solution. In fact, the last two paragraphs of my book read:
Whoever you are, whatever your age, gender, or economic status, there is something for you to do in the fight against plastic pollution. There are so many ways to reach out and connect with the wider world. There are so many dfferent ways to participate in this global movement. All talents and skills are needed.
Just pick one thing and get started.
Boyan is an engineer with an engineer’s brain and way of looking at the world. His contribution is technological. Mine is behavioral. Marcus’s is scientific. Others approach the problem via government policy, or entrepreneurship, or citizen action, or art. All of these approaches are necessary pieces of the puzzle.
If only we all had access to deep pockets to fund our projects. But that’s a discussion for another day.