Company Known As “The Ocean Cleanup” Aims To Launch Fleet Of Trash-Collecting Booms — Does The Approach Make Sense?

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A new company known as “The Ocean Cleanup” has reportedly raised more than $30 million over the last few years, which will be used to create a fleet of floating trash collectors to operate in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, according to CEO Boyan Slat.

Will such an approach actually do much good? Would the money be more effectively spent elsewhere (such as efforts to clean up river systems, harbors, etc., where the flow of plastics into the oceans can be staunched)? Is the whole thing nothing but a ploy to make money by selling positive feelgood PR to tech companies (who provided most of the $30 million mentioned above)?

Slat’s plans, which he says will constitute “the largest cleanup in history,” call for the launch of a fleet of floating trash collectors that will supposedly be able to clean up 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in just 5 years. That’s quite a claim.

Considering that the vast majority of plastic pollution in the oceans isn’t floating at the surface, one has to wonder how to take that statement. Going by recent research, only around 3% of plastic pollution in the oceans is floating at the surface, so what exactly does the claim to clean up 50% of the garbage patch in 5 years mean? Just clean up the most obvious and large pieces at the surface?

Considering that most plastic pollution is broken up into relatively small pieces before it even makes it to the open ocean, it’s hard to say how much good Slat’s plans could actually do.

The Verge provides more: “Nonetheless, investors have bought into the idea of a plastic-collecting flotilla. With the help of a viral TEDx Talk, Slat raised $2.2 million in crowdfunding from 40 countries, he says. Having spun that boost into even larger financial commitments from Silicon Valley, he knows exactly what his audience there wants. ‘It’s using technology to make the world a better place, which they all say they want to do,’ Slat tells The Verge. ‘It’s a very exciting adventure.’

“… Slat’s cleanup system envisions a series of floating booms that will be anchored in a deep layer of ocean water, almost 2,000 feet deep, where currents are slower than at the surface. That means that floating plastic debris will move faster than the booms themselves, concentrating into a central area where ships would collect the trash once a month. As early as December, a 0.6- to 1.2-mile-long prototype could be deployed 50 to 100 miles off of San Francisco for about a month. To make money, Slat eventually plans to have companies like Apple or Microsoft sponsor individual booms, giving them access to live data on how much plastic they’re collecting for branding purposes. ‘It’s almost like a gamification of cleaning the ocean,’ Slat says. The collected debris can then be recycled into pellets; Slat plans to sell those pellets to companies that can manufacture Ocean Cleanup-branded goods, such as the black and bright blue sun glasses he sports when he talks to the press.”

With regard to support for my earlier questions about the plans, I’ll quote further from the article above: “Projects like the Trash Wheel in Baltimore have been extremely successful at collecting over a million pounds of plastic trash before it leaves the harbor. The Ocean Conservancy is working with other partners to install similar systems in other rivers and lakes in several US cities, says Nick Mallos, the director of the Trash Free Seas Program at the Ocean Conservancy.

“Slat says he’s not against prevention or cleaning up rivers. ‘It’s not either or,’ he says. But the Ocean Cleanup’s niche, for now, is picking up plastic from the garbage patch, and its effort can complement all the other ones. In fact, he thinks his project can inspire people to recycle or use less plastic.”

Actually, as ever, it is “either or.” There are only so many resources available — whether material, financial, or otherwise. Owing to this reality, considering the best way to do something in order to achieve a desired outcome is important. And despite what the smartphone-generation may think, often times, these “best ways” to actually improve things or achieve something aren’t flashy, don’t grab the attention of others, and don’t make for the sorts of headlines that allow one to collect a lot of investment money.

And sometimes they even lead to people thinking that you’re poor, or that you’re old fashioned, if you put them into practice. Oh god no!

Commentators sometimes make observations to the effect that I’m a “pessimist” — mostly in the comments sections of articles that I’ve written about climate change, pollution, or deforestation. There are reasons for the views that I have: many, many decades of experience with humans … a background in historical study … and a vantage point that has allowed me to witness the oversimplification and dumbing down of pretty much every aspect of human life in recent decades.

We’ve made a general move away from actually doing things and attempting to create lasting change of one sort or another, and instead towards theatrical performance intended solely for the captivation of an audience. Seemingly, a whole culture has been reduced to the electrochemical spasms of a brain that seems to permanently think that it’s watching television.

I want to believe that people will at some point start taking things seriously enough to avoid turning the whole world to crap. Truly, I do. I want to believe that the sort of needy entitlement that pervades the modern world and precludes any real actions from being taken can be overcome on the collective level. But then I read things like this:

“We are about to give people hope and I think hope makes people want to do something. If you really think that the ocean will be polluted forever, there’s no way to make it go back to zero again, why bother?”

Because you could improve the situation? Because doing so would benefit some of the myriad beautiful, strange, and incredibly old lifeforms that live in the oceans? Because the idealized sort of world where all plastic pollution could be removed from the oceans doesn’t exist, but the chance to do what you know is right does? Because things are getting worse by the year? Because if you don’t, then the oceans become a toxic stew filled with nothing except trash, jellyfish, and massive algae blooms?

(And why are people still using that whole “keep things as vague as possible, use the word hope a lot, and wait for the money to roll in” crap?)

To go over the point that I’m making here again, from the perspective of actually dealing with the issue of vast quantities of plastic making it into the oceans every year, the approach discussed above is probably very nearly the least economical or practical out there. But it makes for a good sales pitch, and good PR for the tech firms that provide the money. That is what matters nowadays, I guess, rather than long-term results.

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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