Heroes with good, but unobtainable intentions
By COO in Plastic Change, Berit Asmussen
It has attracted great attention that the young Boyan Slat and his supporters have set the stage for cleaning up the largest plastic soup in the Pacific Ocean. Solely for this purpose, the intention is both important and heroic. The goal however may seem ambitious, but the result will only be a small drop in the big plastic ocean.
The Ocean Clean-up project will implement what they call "the greatest cleanup in world history". With support from Maersk, among others, they plan to set up a 600m long flow-system, which over the course of five years will reduce the world's largest plastic soup. The idea itself seems exciting - it is, as we all do agree on, important to clean up out there, and we are about to suffocate when thinking of the vast amount of fish that have plastic inside their stomachs, and when we see pictures of animals that are wrapped in plastic or dead because they confuse plastic with food. Still, there are many challenges connected to both the achievements of Ocean Clean-up’s project and the way they plan to conduct it.
Only a cleanup in the surface
If you dissect the goal a bit, it is clear to see that Boyan Slat is aiming to remove half the plastic that is in the surface of the largest “plastic soup” in just 5 years. The problem is just that his system is only capable of capturing plastic that reaches down three meters, and only about 5 percent of the plastic is located in the surface of the “plastic soups”. Most plastic is located deep down in the seabed and in the rest of the water column. This means that Ocean Clean-up - in practice - are aiming at removing no more than approximately 2.5 percent of the plastic that all of us so eagerly want to clean up.
At the same time, an increased amount of plastic is on its way out into the soup. It may take several decades - some experts suggest that it takes 50 years before a piece of plastic - that originates from the coast and floats along the currents - reaches on of the “plastic soups” in the ocean. Therefore, a great deal of plastic is already on the way out there, and it is estimated that we are currently releasing 8 million tons of plastic to the sea each year.
Another problem is that it seems impossible to collect every small piece of plastic from the surface without disturbing the ecosystem. It is hardly possible to avoid catching algae, small crabs and other life that can not swim during the cleanup system. The discharged plastic is getting smaller and smaller on the way to the soups, both because waves and sunbeams break down the big plastic pieces to smaller pieces, and because animals eat them.
Difficult to recycle sea plastic
The Ocean Cleanup is planning to recycle the collected plastic, and that will help finance future cleanup. Honestly, that seems quite unrealistic. Our experience of attempting to recycle relatively large pieces of plastic from the North Sea coast shows that it is very difficult because it is contaminated with algae, sand, etc., and because it consists of many different types of plastics. Plastic soup plastic will be equally contaminated - and in addition, very small, because there are hardly any pieces of large plastic out there.
Cleanup is not enough. Other solutions are also of equal importance. Therefore, one can be concerned that this initiative causes people to believe that a solution to the problem of plastic in the ocean has now been found.
But we are looking forward to following the experiences that The Ocean Cleanup does with this project. Once the system is tested, one could easily imagine that it would have a good effect closer to land.
Cleanup is not enough
In the short run, it will also have a great effect to prevent the plastic from getting into the sea by cleaning up the plastic that is already to be found on land. Initiatives to promote this agenda are already present - take as an example the global World Cleanup Day, where Denmark together with 155 other countries cleaned up with Plastic Change as initiators. Here, thousands of Danes helped make sure that tons of plastic are not turned into micro beats in 50 years. These micro beats are very difficult to catch in the Pacific Ocean, where Ocean Cleanup is currently trying to clean up.
In the long run, plastic must have a greater value so it makes sense for everyone to make sure it is not wasted in nature or simply gets burned off. If we do nothing but cleaning up, it corresponds to constantly soaking water from the basement floor, while the water continues to flood from the water tap on the 1st floor.