Plastic waste is a growing problem for the marine environment. However, as research further sheds light on the source and fate of plastic waste, we have to face a serious question: Is ocean cleanup not going to work?
| Various ocean plastic clean-up projects |
A garbage truck drifted away, rumbling with the roar of its engine, leaving behind a rotten smell. The vehicle stopped, and then started to reverse, and the sound of “beep” resounded through the seaway. When the water hits the rear tires and the garbage truck stops, it opens the tailgate and unloads the full load of plastic cups, straws, bottles, shopping bags, buoys and fishing nets. A minute later, the plastic waste will be going down the river, polluting the ocean and poisoning the food chain. In this way, this garbage truck drives away, and that one drives over again… There is a steady stream of garbage trucks, lining up to dump their respective loads of plastic waste.
Images like these inspire philanthropists, college students, young entrepreneurs, businesses, governments, disaster-affected communities, and nonprofits around the world to take action: a project in South Korea employs fishermen to salvage plastic at sea; in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, a project designed to A cartoon-like garbage interceptor “Mr Garbage Wheel” removes up to 17 tons of rubbish from the city’s harbour a day; Singapore’s “Drone Solutions” company has developed a way to collect plankton from whale sharks Robotic devices for plastic floaters – “garbage sharks”; Chinese and Australian researchers are exploring the possibility of using nanotechnology to separate microplastics from wastewater treatment systems. In addition, there are various attempts to collect old fishing nets in ports, convert plastic into currency to encourage people to collect it, pay millions of dollars to encourage people to salvage plastic waste at sea, and recruit volunteers to dive into the seabed to clean up plastic waste. There is no doubt that these efforts are well-intentioned, but the effect remains to be seen.
For all concerned about the growing plastic pollution of the oceans, the problem is thorny: The vast majority of plastic in the ocean is either too tiny or too out of reach to clean up. They are either suspended in the water, settled on the seafloor, or degraded into tiny particles, making it difficult to even detect, let alone collect. At the same time, with a myriad of possible solutions vying for limited funding, resources, and public support, finding the most likely approach to success is imperative.
| Ambitious “Ocean Cleanup” |
Of the many programs, Operation Ocean Cleanup is one of the most high-profile and well-funded attempts. Not only does it help raise awareness of the seriousness of ocean plastic pollution, it also raises awareness of the challenges of cleaning up ocean plastic.
Founded in 2013 by then 18-year-old Boyan Slater, the nonprofit has raised more than $35 million to clean up the confluence of the five gyres where plastic waste is highest. Slater’s first target was the infamous North Pacific Garbage Patch.
Slater’s plan is to use ocean currents and wind to gather larger plastic floaters into a semi-circular floating arm. With the help of the sea breeze, plastic waste is blown into the float arm, and the open skirt filter under the float arm can hold it, and then the boat will drag the waste to the shore. Simple as it sounds, two initial experiments were unsuccessful, leaving the project years behind schedule. In 2019, following the success of the third test, the group said it would install 60 floating arms in the world’s oceans over the next decade, as originally planned, and expect to clean up 50 percent of the plastic in the oceans by 2023. This ambitious goal has raised a lot of skepticism, partly because none of the floating booms will be officially operational until 2021. Still, Slater said he has hired more than 100 staff and experts to help develop the project’s key floating arm, and has repeatedly stressed that solving big problems often requires bringing in an outside perspective and a venture capitalist attitude.
In 2019, in an interview with the “Digital Trends” media, Slater said: “Instead of doing a lot of small things and hoping for a little accumulation, it is better to devote ourselves to more efficient high-risk, high-reward projects. As long as one of them works, you can do it. Solve all the problems, at least most of them.”
| Doubts, Problems |
By running tests, Ocean Cleanup has raised awareness of the problem of plastic pollution, but from the beginning of the project, scientists have never stopped criticizing it. Many people have expressed concern about the accidental harm that floating arms may bring to marine life. One of the hot spots of debate is the impact of floating arms on marine life. This group of organisms lives in ocean circulation, including animals, plants and microorganisms that drift with the wind and water, such as sea snails. Floating organisms and plastic debris have the same driving force and exist in the same area, which means that collecting plastic will inevitably kill floating organisms by mistake, which will have an incalculable impact on the marine food chain.
More immediate concerns about Operation Ocean Cleanup, however, lie in the enormous difficulty salvaging plastics from the vast ocean. Although a large amount of plastic floats on the surface of the North Pacific Gyre, most of it is out of reach, and it is suspended above the water body and broken down into fine particles that can easily slip out of the floating arms.
The Ocean Cleanup project has tested floating arms to intercept plastic several times, and while the project has achieved some success in collecting plastic waste, it still has flaws.
Sank Horn, a biologist specializing in mathematical modelling at the Leibniz Institute for Marine Science in Germany, is one of many skeptics of Operation Ocean Cleanup. Last year, Horne, in collaboration with researchers in the UK and Germany, published an article analysing the feasibility of Operation Ocean Cleanup to salvage plastic flotsam in five major gyres. Horn and colleagues used the current amount of plastic in the ocean, plus the annual increment, to compare the amount of plastic successfully collected in the project’s tests. Horn’s mathematical modelling suggests that over the project’s 20-year planning time, its ocean cleanup results will not make a noticeable difference to the amount of plastic in the ocean. Even if the ocean cleanup device runs uninterrupted until 2150, it will only remove 1% of the total plastic waste. Even if Horne had artificially increased the number of floating arms to 200 in his calculations, the project would still only collect 5 percent of the plastic flotsam. “That’s an optimistic estimate,” Horn said.
In addition to this, Horn is also concerned about the possible impact of the “Ocean Cleanup” operation. He said that while the project only looked useful, it would make a lot of people feel like they could just sit back and enjoy. “The media and the public love the story of a young man saving the ocean,” Horn said. “It’s easy to think: He’s solved the problem, and we don’t have to make any changes. But in reality, we can’t rely on technology to clean up the ocean. ”
Like many experts in ocean plastic research, Horn believes the rationale for cleaning up the ocean is misleading.
In July 2020, the Pew Charitable Trusts released a report titled “Interrupting the Flow of Plastic.” Project leader Shiran likened cleaning up ocean plastic to cleaning up a flooded house. “The faucet needs to be turned off first, and then the floor is wiped,” says Shiran. “I’m very concerned that the cleanup project will distract people from seeing the root of the problem — cutting off the source.” Preventing plastic from entering the environment is the key, the study found. the most cost-effective means.
Marine floating organisms may be accidentally caught by the floating arms of Operation Ocean Cleanup.
John Hoshiwa, director of the ocean program at Greenpeace in the United States, said the current ocean cleanup is useless, and he believes that every dollar dedicated to the world should be spent on cutting off plastic sources. “The current rate of increase in plastic is far greater than the rate at which we can clean it up, and it will only make it worse,” he said. “We need to get the source under control as soon as possible before we can clean up with confidence.”
| Cut off the source of plastic waste? |
However, controlling the sources of plastic waste is an even more difficult task. In rich countries, blocking the flow of plastic into the ocean will require changing policies, optimizing waste management, developing a circular plastics industry, banning single-use plastics, and encouraging reuse. In poverty-stricken areas, in addition to the above measures, a broader waste management system is needed.
Low-income countries typically generate less plastic waste per capita, but the Pew Research Center found that 2 billion people now live in areas without recycling. With nowhere to put their rubbish, people in these areas often dump their rubbish on the streets, where rain and strong winds carry the rubbish into rivers and eventually into the ocean, Shiran said. Exactly how much plastic waste flows into the sea with rivers is still unclear. A study funded by The Ocean Cleanup put the amount at 800,000 to 2.7 million tons per year, while researchers at Germany’s Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research put it between 400,000 and 4 million tons per year. The center also found that as much as 95 percent of waste originates from just ten rivers. As the population grows, the number of people without recycling channels will double by 2040, making the environmental problem even more serious. Shiran said that achieving full coverage of garbage collection services is an almost impossible task.
Cutting off sources of plastic waste is elusive, at least for now, a realization that underpins ocean cleanup projects.
”We certainly can’t say that there’s too much oil spilled to clean up, so you don’t have to try again,” said Susan Bell, executive director and co-founder of Azure Ocean, a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing oceans Clean up the fleet. “The large amount of plastic in the ocean is harmful to human and marine health, and marine animals eat plastic by mistake,” Bell said.
”The cleanup is an important step in tackling the problem of plastic pollution in the ocean and will continue to do so,” added Chloe Dubois, co-founder of the Canadian nonprofit Ocean Heritage Foundation, which organizes beach cleanups and marine litter. recycling activities. “We remove plastic waste before it breaks down into tiny particles. The cleanup helps to strengthen advocacy, change public behavior, and drive policy change.”
So we’re back to the original problem: among the many competing cleanup projects Which ones deserve our funding, support and attention?
Witnessing the efforts of Operation Ocean Cleanup, recognizing the fact that most of the plastic in the ocean is too small or sinks to the bottom to make it nearly impossible to recover, has led us to a conclusion consistent with many experts: The best way to clean up the ocean is to give up trying.
| Where is ocean plastic going? |
In 2015, after identifying the source rivers of plastics, Ocean Cleanup gradually researched diversified cleaning methods, and began to develop interceptors – a system of river sluices that collect garbage on recycling boats, and have been used in three rivers. Interceptors installed: the Klang River in Malaysia, the Osama River in the Dominican Republic and the Zenkaron River in Indonesia. A fourth interceptor on the Mekong is still under construction. The group plans to install interceptors in 1,000 of the most polluted rivers by 2025.
However, the river is the main road of traffic. In order to avoid affecting the passage of ships, the interceptor only covers part of the river, so a large amount of garbage escapes the interception and gathers in the port. Experts believe these places are ideal for deploying targeted solutions, like the UK’s “Witch of the Sea” project.
In the 1960s Francis Cadick developed a vessel specially designed to clear the waters around Liverpool Docks. For more than 50 years, as marine litter has changed, so has the family business. “In the early days of our business, our boats were mainly used to clean up litter,” said Jackie Kadick, who runs the company. “Now 90 percent of the waste we clean up is plastic, and we have made corresponding improvements to our boats.”
The company’s largest of 1 ton of garbage can be removed every three minutes, and more than 100 tons of garbage are collected every day. The “Witch of the Sea” ships are in service in ports, marinas and resorts in 200 regions around the world.
Plastic waste tends to accumulate in several key locations, such as ports and beaches.
The Interceptor project of Operation Ocean Cleanup has identified the source rivers of most marine plastic waste and attempted to intercept it closer to the source.
Another place where plastic waste tends to accumulate is the beach. Beach cleaning is another effective way to tackle plastic pollution, according to experts such as Marcus Erickson, chief scientist at the Ocean Heritage Foundation’s Dubois and the environmental research group Big Five Circulation Institute. Shoreline cleaning may not sound cool or appealing, but it prevents plastic washed ashore from returning to the ocean, sinking to the bottom of the ocean, or breaking down into uncleanable particles in the sun.
This humble beach cleanup has achieved no small feat. Over the past 27 years, Canadian volunteers have cleaned nearly 45,000 kilometers of internal waterways, an important part of the “Canada Shoreline Cleanup” campaign. In 2019, the project removed 160 tons of waste. In the northern Gulf of Alaska, the Guardians of the Gulf of Alaska runs a similar project that since 2006 has cleaned more than 2,400 kilometers of coastline and collected more than 1,300 tons of plastic waste, which is only a handful of workers who work during the summer months. ‘s results. If the “Ocean Cleanup” $35 million investment was spent on this, the effect can be imagined. Greenpeace’s Hosiva agrees that volunteer beach cleanups should continue, as it increases public participation in tackling plastic pollution.
Another concentrated source of plastic waste is the 500,000 to 1 million tons of commercial fishing gear discarded at sea each year, Erickson said. According to a study by Operation Ocean Cleanup, they can account for up to 70 percent of the trash cleaned up on Alaska beaches by weight, and more than 46 percent of large ocean plastic flotsam. They are extremely destructive, not only polluting the ocean, but also causing the death of marine life.
Port and beach clean-ups, like “Witches of the Sea,” may be more effective at collecting plastic waste than ocean clean-ups.
Research has shown that most plastic flotsam wash up on beaches within a few years, where it is collected, preventing the plastic from breaking down or re-entering the ocean.
The good news, though, is that fishing gear is easier to collect than other plastic waste and less likely to be missed. Some projects have set up waste bins at docks to allow fishermen to dispose of old gear more economically and safely. California-based Breo buys old fishing nets from South American fishermen and turns them into skateboards and sunglasses. The “Fishing Gear Waste” project, run by the European pollution prevention and marine health NGO “Kimo International”, meets the needs of fishermen for recycling. Since 2004, the project has encouraged fishermen to collect discarded fishing gear and other waste at sea and put it into waste bins the organization has set up in ports across Europe. Between 2016 and 2017, nearly 1,000 ships spontaneously collected 470 tons of ocean plastic and other waste. “We aim to achieve long-term change and make fishermen an important force in solving marine litter,” said Arabel Bentley, the group’s executive secretary. “For fishermen, it also makes them feel good.”
However, Sadly, we still do not recognize the key to ocean cleanup. The person who can solve this problem is not a creative entrepreneur, and the solution does not need to be eye-catching. If you want to do more, help clean up rivers, ports and beaches. It is imperative to slow down the dumping of garbage trucks, and right now, they are still accelerating, and the amount of plastic we use every year is increasing. Today, garbage trucks are unloaded every minute, and by 2050, it is expected to reach once every 15 seconds. If this continues, it won’t be long before there will be more plastic waste in the ocean than fish.