Science Column: How to Save the World

By: Shannon Kelleher

I like to think of myself as a realist (doesn’t everyone?) but I have to admit that I possess a strong tendency towards optimism. Like a nice dark beer, a healthy dose of optimism warms my insides and gives me the confidence that I need to go forward even while it may distort my vision. So, naturally, when I read a recent article claiming that a nineteen year-old genius had formulated a plan to clean up the ocean in just a couple of years and make a profit doing it, my internal optimist immediately began turning cartwheels.

Boyan Slat, a Dutch aerospace engineering student, has begun formulating plans for a project called the Ocean Cleanup Foundation, which would center around a sea-and solar-powered sifter called the Ocean Cleanup Array. The device would consist of a plastic processing center flanked by two enormous buoys that would use the ocean’s energy to corral floating plastic waste into the processing center, all without harming any marine life in the process. The plastic could then be taken to shore and sold, resulting in a net profit for the company willing to adopt his idea. Slat claims that his Ocean Cleanup Array would rid the oceans of 7.25 million tons of waste in a span of only five years. Bam-global crisis solved.

Is Slat just an incredibly intelligent idealist with a knack for attracting media attention? While I didn’t think so at first, (namely because I would love to see the solution to ocean pollution all wrapped up in a neat little bundle as advertised) I am starting to think otherwise.

The problems in Slat’s “solution” (and they are numerous) arise when it is scrutinized in the context of real world oceans and economics, as Stiv Wilson has done in his article “The Fallacy of Cleaning the Gyres of Plastic with a Floating ‘Ocean Cleanup Array’.” (For your reference, a gyre is simply a rotating ocean current.) Wilson claims that Slat’s project has progressed no further than “the fairy tale phase” and, unfortunately, Wilson’s logic compels me to agree with him:

1. Slat has never actually been to any of the gyres. Wilson points out that he has no idea the magnitude of the sea nor the intensity of its weather and how this would impact his project.

2. Other projects of a similar nature but less ambitious scale haven’t exactly gone swimmingly. Finavera Renewables’ attempt to create North America’s first offshore wave energy farm ended when its first test buoy, rated for “100 year survivability”, sank after only a few months. The ocean got the best of them. Envision Plastics’ line of “Ocean Plastic” products was first hailed by the media but flopped because it was forced to set high prices due to necessary production expenses. The economy got the best of them.

3. Transportation of the plastics to a recycling facility would be extremely expensive. It would probably overshadow any potential profits.

4. Recycling doesn’t actually help the environment as much as we want to think. Plastic breaks down every time it is recycled and therefore it cannot be recycled indefinitely; recycling a product merely postpones its future as non-degradable waste. Therefore, the products that Slat’s apparatus would remove from the ocean would eventually return there, perhaps at a faster rate than they could be removed.

5. Slat assumes that plastic waste is found only on the surface of the ocean when, in actuality, it is suspended 100 to 150 meters deep. This means that there is a whole lot more plastic out there than he’s banking on, and much of it could not be processed by his device.

I’d love to see Slat’s project succeed, but if Wilson’s reasoning holds up (and judging by his extensive knowledge and experience I think it will) it is probably no more than a fleeting fad in conservation media. Sigh. So what can we do to clean up our mess? We can start with the beaches; about half of all the garbage carried by the gyres ends up there eventually before being washed back out to sea. And we can make a concerted effort to quell our consumption of plastic, which I recognize is no small challenge when it composes most products we use. There is no easy way to save the world, no genius that can swoop in with a quick-fix solution. That may not sound optimistic, but it’s the truth and if we hope to overcome ocean pollution (or any other crisis) we can’t lose sight of that.

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