Forgive me for getting this missive out later than usual. I’ve been absorbing thousands of words about the oceans of the world, distilling them down to a few hundred to share with you. It’s been quite a voyage.
What caused me to set sail was a news item about a 19-year-old Dutch student who has become a media darling for devising a plan to clean up the oceans in five years. Sounds great, right? Except that the scientists who have actually been working on this problem say it’s impossible. When I watched Boyan Slat
present his idea at TEDxDelft
I had to admit, he’s the very picture of the Boy Wonder, the young hero our culture waits for to solve all of our problems. He could easily be a rock star with his shaggy hair and poster-boy face. In a delightful accent to his English, he spoke in a confident yet breathlessly nervous voice of his plan to remove 7,250,000 kilograms of plastic from the ocean’s gyres in just five years, even making a good profit from recycling the plastic. He came up with the concept while in secondary school in his native Holland. In 2012, his Ocean Cleanup Array won Best Technical Design at the Delft University of Technology, where he is now an aerospace engineering student. He founded The Ocean Cleanup Foundation in January 2013. www.boyanslat.com
Using the crowdfunding site Indiegogo to raise $80,000 for a feasibility study, he surpassed his goal in one month: $89,518 was the final tally. At the end of his presentation, when he says, “I don’t know if it’s possible, and that’s exactly the reason I’m doing it” you want to believe him!
As Stiv Wilson
, Policy Director for 5 Gyres Institute
writes in his rebuttal
, “The sea is cruel and it’s really, really, really big.” And unlike Slat, Wilson has traversed four of the five gyres and has seen the horror humanity has wreaked upon the ocean with his own eyes.
A gyre (think “gyroscope”) is a giant vortex in an ocean basin created by vast ocean currents. The water in a gyre’s center may pile up six feet higher than sea level outside the gyre. Even if you’ve never heard of an ocean gyre, certainly you are familiar with the Gulf Stream. It is the western current of the North Atlantic Gyre; there are three currents along the other sides.
But it was the North Pacific Gyre which was first brought to public attention in 1997 by Captain Charles Moore
. He was sailing home from a long-distance race and encountered an immense area of floating debris, most of it small bits of plastic. Soon it was dubbed “the Great Pacific Garbage Patch” with varying estimates of its size; Marinedebris.info
states it’s twice the size of the United States.
Not all of the plastic is on the surface where it could be more readily measured. Not only do fish, birds, and animals become entangled in marine debris, they consume these bits of plastic, thinking they are food, causing internal blockages and starvation. Even worse, bits of plastic have been found to absorb PCBs and pesticides such as DDT (banned in the US since 1972, but still used in other countries). Think about the food chain: a small fish eats what it believes to be plankton but are actually microscopic pieces of poisonous plastic; a larger fish eats that fish, and others; and up the food chain we go, with greater concentrations each link until your lovely fish dinner awaits! Yes, we humans are ingesting greater amounts of micro-plastic every year. And we have only ourselves to blame.
Experienced marine debris researchers, on www.MarineDebris.info
compiled guidelines for cleanup of debris, especially plastics, from the open sea. Slat did attempt to address these issues but I have yet to find an actual scientist who supports his plan (doesn’t mean they don’t exist, just that the community of researchers who have been battling marine debris for years do not agree with him).
Briefly, here are the basic challenges Slat’s system will face, according to MarineDebris.info
and 5 Gyre’s Stiv Wilson:
1. the size and depth of the ocean gyres within which floating marine plastics tend to gather; Slat may have to moor his platforms at 4,000 meters, twice as deep as BP’s Atlantis
dual oil and gas production facility, 190 miles south of New Orleans in the Gulf of Mexico which at 2,000 meters, is the deepest mooring in the world.
2. depth and concentration of microplastics; Slat’s system uses long, flexible surface booms, but debris can drift down the water column, to 150 meters or more.
3. capturing tiny particles of plastics while not harming microscopic marine organisms such as plankton mingled with the plastics.
4. potential for entanglement of larger marine life in the systems. Wilson: “If one endangered sea turtle was caught up? The fines that Slat would face would bankrupt his project in a second.”
5. strength and stability in extreme sea conditions; Slat’s array would not survive weeks of thirty-foot waves. It would become marine debris itself, a hazard to maritime navigation.
6. maintenance and fouling; Wilson: “Outer space is less corrosive to machines than the ocean is” and sea life grows rapidly on any surface.
7. the physical properties of ocean-weathered plastic; Slat claims that plastics retrieved from the five gyres for recycling would be financially profitable. He does admit it would not be of top quality; other sources state it would be worthless due to degradation. Recycled materials must be clean to be utilized, and this material would be fouled by sea life such as barnacles.
8. legal issues; a bewildering multitude of laws regulate the deployment of structures at sea.
Like Stiv Wilson, I hate to be thought of as a bitter “kid-hater” because I am really happy there are 19-year-olds like Boyan Slat in the world. You probably agree: “what is wrong with kids today?” is a common lament. Unlike most people, however, I have been blessed to know many great kids like him who have volunteered with Wildlife Research Team. I have to wish him well.
In closing, I quite liked this comment from “Harry
,” who watches over a particular beach in Maine, and discusses his findings in his blog
, on Slat’s plan: “This idea that if we’ve messed something up, there’s science/tech out there that can fix it. That keeps us from having to make the hard choices about our lifestyle. In this case, there isn’t. It is not possible to clean the oceans up of their debris. Not without breaking the bank of every nation on earth and scooping out and killing all the life in its first 100 feet of depth. That’s what we have done to our planet in just a couple generations. That’s plastic’s legacy. We cannot actively go out and clean it up in any meaningful way. What we can do is to change consumption behavior, change materials, improve waste management; do the things that stop persistent plastic from getting in the ocean in the first place.”
It starts with me, and with you. What actions can we take today to reduce our dependence on plastic?
Thank you for your interest in Wildlife Research Team!
Hope to see you in a black canoe,
P.S. Another great source you should check out is DeepSeaNews
. It’s Cocktail Week!
Photo credit: Donna McVicar Kazo
A Portugese Man o’ War, Physalia physalis, like plastic, lets the winds and currents take it where they may.