Waste Watch: Ocean Cleanup Yields Meager Results

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?

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  1. Ian Perkins

    Microscopic bits of plastic are working their way up the food chain
    Jenny and Ocean Cleanup are even less likely to have a significant effect on this than on macroplastics. Lots of microplastics come from our clothes when they’re washed and our vehicles’ tires when they’re driven.

  2. Brooklin Bridge

    It feels as if we are closely following every minutia of some extraordinarily detailed plan that ensures there will be no way, not a scintilla of a hope, not a thread to hold on to, no conceivable way to back out, as we propel ourselves into our own extinction event. And every relevant industry is determined to fight tooth and nail to keep us on track.

    A few fat cats will get to live underground for a few years. They deserve it.

    1. Samuel Conner

      > A few fat cats will get to live underground for a few years. They deserve it.

      I wonder if there are people working on transhumanist concepts to adapt future people to an unlivable-for-current-biology world.

      Cybermen, anyone?

      1. megrim

        > I wonder if there are people working on transhumanist concepts to adapt future people to an unlivable-for-current-biology world.

        Shades of MaddAddam Trilogy right there.

  3. someone


    I was counting on Ocean Cleanup’s success. Indeed, I was hoping to increase my Coca Cola consumption, knowing that they would clean up after me.

  4. Eloined

    Sadly youth with savior complexes are easy marks for corporate exploitation. The young founder’s TED talk gave rise to the Ocean Cleanup project. Now he’s selling recycled-plastic sunglasses for $199.

    Not sure how we’ll get tomorrow’s aspiring geoengineers to do / not do something useful instead. Meditation maybe.

  5. Rod

    I put this comment on Links to comment on :
    because, imo, it bears more emphasis and would be the same as my comment on this.

    Baby Poop Is Loaded With Microplastics Wired
    The researchers found smaller amounts of both polymers in the meconium, suggesting that babies are born with plastics already in their systems. This echoes previous studies that have found microplastics in human placentas and meconium.

    should give everyone the puckers.

    And a very short, simple, why this matters so much, from Living on Earth
    (Transcripts follow the segments)


    Poisoning everything with the impunity we all are enableing.

    One cannot ignore the reproductive science, as it explains much about modern maladies.

    1. Rod

      thanks JLS–we cannot look away

      and this is not to tamp down my joy they pulled those 8 tons out in five days–and the boom stayed together(unlike last time)–and this was really their first of many tries and booms they say they will do.

      and of course it would be better if Coke just was responsible for their own poison sh*t instead of buying their way out:


      1. Rod

        A Universal Reward for Return (Bottle Deposit Bill) is the fastest ‘Radical Consevation’ Action that can applied followed ASAP by Universal EPR(Extended Producer Responsibility).

        and of course there is a sundry of solutions an active ‘Monkey Wrench Gang’ could initiate.

        Have your say Oct 11-15:

        1. converger

          On universal bottle deposit laws: be careful what you wish for.

          In California, locations for people to return bottles and cans for deposit have effectively disappeared. It’s no longer viable to pick up after people who have thrown their containers away. Meanwhile, bilingual stickers on municipal recycling bins warn that it is a crime to pick out bottles and cans. That’s because public and private recyclers alike treat California bottle deposits as a direct subsidy that props up generally ineffective mandated recycling.

          It doesn’t have to be this way. But forty plus years on from the first bottle deposit bills (which originally required the stores that sold non-reusable bottles to physically take them back), here we are. With a few notable and genuinely worthwhile exceptions, recycling is a dead end posing as an increasingly elaborate and expensive technological solution. In the case of most plastics, (9% gets recycled once, 1% gets recycled twice), recycling will always be a flat-out fraud. Over the long haul, if we can’t reuse it or compost it, chances are we’re doing it wrong.

  6. The Rev Kev

    Should have guessed that this idea was going to be a dead end, even if well intentioned. Supposing that it was a massive success and was pulling out 10,000 tons of plastic a day, that would be a win, right? Maybe. What would more likely happen is that once people knew how successful this project was going, that they would use even more plastic in their everyday lives because it would no longer be a problem they figure. It’s like that situation that if you had a herd of 1,000 deer and you shot 200 a year, you would not end up with 800 deer but they would increase their numbers to make up for those 200 deer leaving you with 1,000 deer again. No, the only real solution is to turn the clock back to the 1950s as far as the use of plastic is concerned. There is no other viable solution.

  7. Acacia

    No mention of where all the plastic pollution is coming from?

    Visiting one of the Ryukyu Islands a few years ago, I found beaches covered with shocking amounts of plastic garbage washed ashore. Very depressing. Upon closer inspection of the rubbish, nearly all of it was from China.

    How much is China contributing to pay for this massive cleanup operation?

    1. drsteve0

      Oh come on, what nations’ consumers buy most of that plastic crap from China et al? Ever been to a Walmart? Responsibility deserves to be spread around.

      1. Acacia

        Indeed, let’s spread the responsibility to all the polluters, especially the largest.

        In 2010, 8.8 million metric tons of mismanaged plastic waste came from China with an estimated 3.53 million metric tons of it ending up in the ocean. A total of 3.2 million metric tons of mismanaged plastic waste came from Indonesia and it is estimated that 1.29 million metric tons became plastic marine debris. The United States is also guilty of polluting oceans with plastic, but at a much lower level than China. Annually, 0.11 million metric tons of waterborne plastic garbage comes from the United States.


        Again: How much is China contributing to pay for this massive cleanup operation?

        1. drsteve0

          Impressive, specific numbers. Point was, who is creating the demand for most of this plastic junk. Do you seriously think China manufactures all this crap for $hit$ and giggles? Oh, and what massive cleanup operation are you referring to? This featured oceanic joke? Wouldn’t Greenspan and his ilk sweep this under the rug as ‘externalities’.

  8. Rolf

    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.

    While possibly impolite to disparage such efforts, clearly this program is an enormous waste. The flux of waste input is ~3 orders of larger than recovery. And worse, they may give people the bankrupt notion that there’s actually no problem with plastic waste (“see, they’re cleaning it up!”). As mentioned elsewhere, the energy consumed is far larger than the cost (in joules, or GT-C, etc.) of substituting durable (hence reusable) materials in first use. Polymers are wonderful things, whose real cost (i.e. full cycle) can be lower than alternatives, but this does not include much of their use today. As has been documented in previous NewCap pages, recycling of plastics is difficult, given the diversity of composition and properties of material in waste streams. Anyone who studies the science and technology of environmental remediation quickly reaches the conclusion that the key is to focus on absolute limits at the source; once the stuff, whatever it is, is loose in the environment it is enormously expensive, and in many (perhaps most) cases, ultimately infeasible, to clean it up.

  9. Susan the other

    It’s new technology. Jenny sounds reasonably effective if there are enough ships to match the use of plastics. So that’s lotsa ships pulling horseshoe nets. I agree it’s absurd to continue to use plastics far beyond our capacity to clean them up. The time lag between when we stop using plastics and cleaning them all out of the oceans will be decades. Better start now. If the Japanese and Chinese can send fishing fleets far and wide to fish the oceans, it’s a little puzzling why we can’t send reclamation fleets far and wide and do an effective job of fishing out all the trash. There’s no cost-benefit analysis to be made here because nobody is going to auction off the trash for the highest bidder. Those prices will be established at a level that makes a new industry function smoothly. A new utility. That’s a major blind spot because there is pure benefit occurring. As far as not polluting the oceans in the first place with barges of garbage – we need to maintain land-based garbage dumps and included in that waste reclamation effort should be a separation of compostable garbage from recyclable garbage. It’s one or the other. This isn’t rocket science.

    1. JE

      Perhaps I’m missing the sarcasm, but there is most decidedly not “pure benefit occurring” here. This is greenwashing all the way. We are increasing fossil fuel consumption dramatically to fuel ships dragging the ocean for plastic based on fossil fuels. Assuming a 10x improvement in dragging to 80 tons of plastic per 120 hours, that is 1 ton per hour roughly. Considering a ship consumes 100s of pounds of fuel per hour, and 2 are needed, and 3lbs of CO2 is generated by each 1lb of diesel burned, we’re looking at roughly a 1:1 ratio by weight of exchanging CO2 in the atmosphere for removing plastic in the ocean. Plastic in the ocean represents carbon sequestering, so sadly I would say this is a humongous waste of resources and incredibly damaging to the atmosphere and climate. There is no benefit. Instead, as yourself and others have pointed out we need to ban plastics in most consumer packaging applications and we haven’t even talked about commercial fishing, which as compared to consumer waste, counts for the majority of plastic in the ocean.

      1. Susan the other

        Yes, you are absolutely correct here. I’m saying there “can be” pure benefit to cleaning up the oceans (and banning future plastic pollution) and we shouldn’t back off because it looks like a waste of money. Everything we do is incentivized by making a profit. But that really can’t happen here. One possible way to balance things would be to make all those Maersk cargo ships traverse the ocean, each dragging pollution nets big enough to offset all the plastic on board. Maybe solar ships/wind ships. And definitely commercial fishing ships need to be held responsible. Maybe it is possible to set up plastic nets bouyed along the various ocean currents and to catch the tide. Of course, again, the reason we don’t do these things is because it cuts too deep into profit margins and makes the costs outweigh the benefits. We need to change our way of defining a “benefit” imo.

        1. JE

          My recollection is that the original concepts for this kind of garbage capture were passive, weirs dropped off in the trash patch that would collect the plastic into a hopper or something via wave action alone. Not sure if that is a dead concept or what, but on to the ship-towed version at hand… In the description above they describe cameras being used to see wildlife caught in the nets. I like your idea of making container ships tow these to help but there is no way a container ship is going to have the manpower to monitor these wildlife cameras nor to do anything should an animal become ensnared. And stopping the boat to fix this and save the animal? Nope. Not without dramatic changes in incentives and punishments.

          We need to redefine much of what makes our society run. Ministry For the Future is a fantastic book that tries to do imagine a world where this happens, where benefit is what is good for the Earth and everyone, rather than what is good for the bottom line and for me. With appropriate incentives and tariffs of course. :)

  10. JEHR

    There must be some kind of “death wish” within the human psyche. Because we know that in the end we all will die, perhaps that is the thing we do not fear when we should. Or maybe we just think that someone else will take care of it.

  11. Synoia

    I remember when there was little or no plastic. In the late ’50s and ’60s.

    Cardboard, yes. Paper bags yes. But also, I remember the packing eliminator of all time – The Sturdy, Reusable, Shopping Basket, sometimes lined with yesterday’s newspaper,

    Veggies were not packaged.Meat was wrapped in butchers`paper.

    We chopped fop food, every day a of the week. There was little in the Dust Bin (Garbage Can), and nearly all wast from a hone was composted, in the compost pile, and, when composted, scattered around the plants, flowers and veggies, in the garden.

    1. Ian Perkins

      It was still like that here in the 1990s, only with banana and lotus leaves instead of paper, and chickens and pigs instead of composting. But plastic bags are so cheap, convenient, and modern, they caught on bigly once they arrived, and livestock are now all but banished from the cities.

  12. Hacker

    Someone should give a TED talk on how the TED talk format supports uncritical optimism that leads to disasters like this. Was there anyone who reads NC that didn’t see this coming?

    1. converger

      I attended TED conferences for years. At one point I was pushing for a TEDFail session at each conference, where speakers could reflect on lessons learned from various TED-promoted initiatives which eventually turned out to be terrible ideas.

  13. markinoz

    I’m sure if I brewed up a 44 gallon drum of various waste, paint, oil, old containers, and then tipped it over the fence into my neighbours back garden, it would not be long before the local EPA and lawsuits arrived, with demands that I clean up the mess at my expense.

    That we allow producers of toxic products to profit and squander resources, with no requirement that they pay from these profits to clean up their products, means the ecological devastation will continue unabated. Not until shareholders in these companies understand their investments are trending to zero will there be action (and funding in the billions for remediation and restoration of the “back garden”).

    I’ve sailed the Pacific ocean…guys this is serious

  14. Ian Ollmann

    > Not only to reduce waste, but also so as not to generate the extra carbon that goes into
    > making plastics in the first instance.

    How much is this anyway? This former chemist is reminded that when you make plastic, the carbon doesn’t go into the atmosphere, it goes into the plastic, so not per se a source of atmospheric CO2. Yes there are pumping and refinery losses. Some of them are powered / heated by fossil fuels and may be flaring off natural gas, and of course carbon monoxide if syngas is involved, but is the inefficiency so great? Plastics are only a tiny fraction of the fossil fuel industry.

    There are indeed big problems with plastics, especially single use plastics, but if I got to choose where the fossil fuel would end up, a diesel fuel or a plastic bag, the plastic bag seems like a better choice. We can bury the plastic bag, just as we should have left the oil buried in the first place. It is a lot more likely to stay put than CO2 sequestration and storage.

  15. SES

    Years ago Jordan Peterson was touting this effort, as an inspiring of example of “positive” action to set against all those nay-saying activists lobbying against emitting plastic waste at source. Of course it’s bogus greenwashing.

    Perhaps we need a supplement to the two simple rules of neoliberalism? How about “Anything that can be gamed, will.”

  16. Edward

    Something like this needs to happen, even if we end current plastic production today. Hopefully, the technology can be improved and this can be viewed as an “alpha test” trial run.

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