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Many of the open ocean techno-fixes have died down in the last five years, mostly because the science of plastic pollution tells us plastics fragment quickly, are mostly small particles widely distributed across the globe, and are highly toxic after time at sea – more akin to a smog of plastic rather than a consolidated patch. Recovery is much more challenging than we thought, and the ocean is rapidly beaching it and sinking the smallest particles.

The solar-powered SeaVax. Image via 5 Gyres.

The solar-powered SeaVax. Image via 5 Gyres.

One of the biggest issues around any cleanup contraption is by-catch, the unintended killing of passively floating organisms that can’t swim away. The ocean is full of them. Another issue is that open-ocean recovery misses the majority of the trash washing down rivers and blowing off beaches, which typically don’t make it to the middle of the ocean before fragmenting into microplastics. Another is the PR challenge of not letting post-consumer cleanup distract the attention of the public and policymakers from circular economy thinking, like upstream design innovations and policy intervention that prevent the problem in the first place.

The merit of open-ocean clean up is that it could capture persistent plastic products like fishing gear that’s designed to last years or decades. Catching that before in fragments into microplastic is worthy. The biggest advantage to these clean-up contraptions is deployment upstream.  That’s where the waste really is the worst. You’ll get your biggest bang for your buck, and you will save our seas from the greatest source of contamination. The further upstream you go, the more success you will have.

(This article originally appeared on 5 Gyres. It has been reprinted here with permission.)

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