By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Ocean Cleanup. the much-hyped project to collect plastic waste from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, limped back into port recently. yielding merger results,
Now, I’m loath to criticize this endeavor, as we must certainty clean up our environmental messes. Yet what worries me about this project is that some might think that this technofix can substitute for what we urgently must do: Stop using so much plastic. Now. Not only to reduce waste, but also so as not to generate the extra carbon that goes into making plastics in the first instance.
Cleaning up rubbish was necessary well before plastics became the scourge they are today. Back in the ‘70s, I remember when I – along with my Girl Scout troop – cleaned up a stretch of local highway. We were shocked by what people tossed out of their cars: dirty disposable diapers? Yuck.
Back to the present, the situation’s considerably worsened, as plastic waste has increased, as discussed in this article in Hakai magazine. Scooping Plastic Out of the Ocean Is a Losing Game:
A garbage truck turns off the road, engine rumbling, brakes wheezing, and the smell of rot trailing in its wake. The truck stops short and starts to reverse—beep, beep, beeping down a boat launch. With salt water lapping at its rear tires it stops, opens its tailgate, and dumps its load of cups, straws, bottles, shopping bags, fishing buoys, and nets.
A minute later, this plastic waste is floating away on a journey to pollute the ocean and poison the food chain. As the garbage truck drives away it passes another truck preparing to back down the ramp. And another pulling into the marina—one of an endless stream of garbage trucks, each lining up to dump its own load of plastics.
It doesn’t happen like this, of course, but eight million tonnes of plastic does end up in the ocean every year—the equivalent of a garbage truck’s–worth every minute. And the rate is increasing. If nothing changes, the amount of plastic sloshing around the ocean could double in 10 years. By 2050, that mass of plastic could exceed the weight of all the fish in the sea.
The costs to society and the environment are huge. A study by the consultancy firm Deloitte shows that, every year, up to 1,000,000 seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles die after ingesting or being entangled by plastic. Microscopic bits of plastic are working their way up the food chain, including in the seafood we eat. Plastic floating around the ocean carries invasive species that compete with or prey on native species. And when it washes onto beaches, plastic pollution affects tourism and devalues real estate. In its examination for 2018, Deloitte pegged the price of ocean plastic pollution at US $6-billion to $19-billion. That’s cheap compared with another study, which calculated the cost at up to $2.5-trillion per year, or $33,000 per tonne. None of that accounts for plastic’s costs to human health. Yet along its production cycle from oil and gas refining to use and disposal, plastic produces chemical emissions that have been linked to hormone disruption and cancer.
While Cceaning up this mess is certainly a worthy goal, alas, Ocean Cleanup hasn’t managed to fulfill its early promise, despite much enthusiastic hype. From The Wire, Ocean Cleanup Struggles To Fulfill Promise to Scoop up Plastic at Sea:
Docked at a Canadian port, crew members returned from a test run of the Ocean Cleanup’s system to rid the Pacific of plastic trash were thrilled by the meager results – even as marine scientists and other ocean experts doubted the effort could succeed.
The non-profit, launched in 2013 amid buoyant media coverage, hopes to clear 90% of floating plastic from the world’s oceans by 2040. But the group’s own best-case scenario – still likely years away – envisions removing 20,000 tonnes a year from the North Pacific, a small fraction of the roughly 11 million tonnes of plastic flowing annually into the oceans.
And that amount entering the ocean is expected to nearly triple to 29 million tonnes annually by 2040, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.
The Ocean Cleanup, funded by cash donations and corporations including Coca-Cola, as well as in-kind donors like A.P. Moller-Maersk, had fixed assets over $51 million (Rs 374.86 crore) at the end of 2020.
During 120 hours of deployment last month, System 002 – or “Jenny”, as the crew nicknamed it – scooped up 8.2 tonnes of plastic, or less than a garbage truck’s standard haul. The Ocean Cleanup spokesperson Joost Dubois described the amount as “on the high end of our estimates” and emphasised that it was still just in the test phase.
I spot some greenwashing here: notice Coca Cola’s donation. I’m certain their contribution is a mere drop in the bucket compared to their profits from plastics waste the company has produced over the last decades.
Over to The Wire again, zeroing in on the nub of the plastics problem:
I think they’re coming from a good place of wanting to help the ocean, but by far the best way to help the ocean is to prevent plastic from getting in the ocean in the first place,” said Miriam Goldstein, director of ocean policy at the Center for American Progress think tank.
“Once plastic has gotten into the open ocean, it becomes very expensive and fossil-fuel intensive to get it back out again.”
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, after handling that dirty disposable diaper during my teenage years, but I confess I’m still amazed at the amount of garbage we’ve collectively managed to dump into the oceans. I’m old enough to remember when cloth diapers were the norm and I suppose Pampers and their ilk account for a significant amount of the U.S. waste stream. Those and so many unnecessary other things. According to The Wire:
The Ocean Cleanup’s first target is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the world’s largest swirling mass of marine debris spanning 1.6 million square kilometers in the North Pacific between California and Hawaii. The group estimates the patch holds at least 79,000 tonnes of plastic.
If the flow of plastic into the ocean continues unabated, the seas will contain more plastic mass than fish by 2050, according to the World Economic Forum.
Note that the Ocean Cleanup system also contributes to global warming, as the system releases greenhouse gases:
The Ocean Cleanup, created by Dutch inventor Boyan Slat when he was 18, initially planned on using an autonomous floating system driven by wind, waves and currents to remove plastic. But that first system, named Wilson, bobbed ineffectively alongside the garbage until it ultimately broke. A later design, System 001B, was more efficient, but the team estimated they would need 150 such systems to clear the patch at a high cost.
With the Jenny system, two fuel-powered Maersk vessels tow the 520-meter wide horseshoe-shaped catchment system across the ocean surface. An underwater camera helps make sure marine life does not become entangled.
“Jenny has outperformed everything we’ve done so far,” Dubois said of the recent six-week trials, during which the system picked up plastics small as 1 centimeter in diameter.
The Ocean Cleanup hopes eventually to deploy 10 to 15 expanded-range Jennys – powered by 20 to 30 ships – to operate round the clock 365 days a year at the garbage patch. At that scale, organizers say, the effort could recover between 15,000 and 20,000 tonnes of plastic a year, though it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
The group regrets its reliance on ships that release climate-warming greenhouse emissions. The Ocean Cleanup is purchasing carbon credits to offset the heavy fuel use and noted that Maersk is experimenting with less-polluting biofuels. “Preferably we would have done something without any carbon footprint,” Dubois said.
The Bottom Line
It’s perhaps inappropriate to trash the well-meaning efforts of people who are trying to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Yet a far sounder policy might be to eliminate most of our uses of plastics, thus preventing them from getting into the oceans in the first place. Not so long ago – within my lifetime, as a matter of fact – bottles were made of glass, grocery bags were paper, and plastics weren’t so ubiquitous. Can’t we move back to a world where we just say no to plastic?