When 19-year-old Boyan Slat told the world he had developed an ocean clean up array, the news went absolutely viral. He claimed that more than 7 tons of plastic could be cleaned from the world’s oceans in a few years.

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This idea from the CEO of The Ocean Clean Up is certainly thought-provoking, but it isn’t without its detractors.

Considering that no one knows exactly how dire the plastic problem truly is, we can trust in an underwhelming estimate that roughly 15-40 percent of all plastics we make end up in our oceans. Scientists still don’t know where more than 99% of ocean plastic debris ends up either, but it is killing ocean life and choking our ecosystems in ways that are mind-numbing.

It is noble that a nineteen-year-old would feel more angst over the plastic trash accumulating in our oceans than most would feel over finding a girlfriend, but some say that Slat’s device won’t help matters. Rather, they might make them worse. He is accused of fundamentally misunderstanding marine plastics, and worse, according to some, his invention is “going to damage and kill marine life.”

The primary arguments are that:

  • An ocean gyre is a rotating current that circulates within one of the world’s oceans. Non-profits like 5gyres.org state that, “These five massive, slow rotating whirlpools accumulate plastic, and because petroleum plastics are designed to last, the plastic trash will remain in the ocean for decades or longer. In the ocean, sunlight and waves cause floating plastics to break into increasingly smaller particles, but they never completely disappear or biodegrade. Plastic particles act as sponges for waterborne contaminants such as pesticides.” Furthermore, some estimate that 98 percent of all plastics in our oceans are less than 5mm in size. Slat’s device does not take into account the gyre aspect of ocean plastics, and though he claims his invention can retrieve plastics from the ocean, which can then be recycled, it does not account for the tiny, sometimes microscopic bits that end up in coral reefs, and all throughout the ocean biome.
  •  The solution should start on land, not at sea. Considering how much of our trash is plastic, it would make sense that we would curb its creation from the start. Instead of using plastic cups, bags, utensils, etc., we should be turning to much more sustainable and environmentally friendly products that biodegrade (and would not then end up in our oceans – ever). Fifty percent of all the oil we import makes plastics, but there are other, cleaner alternatives, such as hemp plastics, and other plant-based materials.  If we take plastics out of our oceans without addressing them on land, we have nothing but an endless cycle of clean-up. This is because once marine plastics are collected and brought back onto land, they are very likely to end up right back in the ocean. Plastics exist in something called “deep time,” geologic timescales that far outstrip the timescales of species like humans. Rather than degrade into their constituent molecules, plastics fragment into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic, and according to laboratory studies, this “degradation of cm-size plastics results in microscopic particles that remain in Earth’s environment indefinitely.” So, no matter how great the device to take plastics out of the ocean, until we simply reduce petroleum derived plastics altogether, we haven’t really solved the problem, but just bandaged a gushing wound.
  • There have been no environmental impact assessments conducted to measure what damage the array might cause to ocean life. Since most zooplankton don’t survive when they are caught in a manta net, you can imagine what might happen to larger marine life like dolphins or swordfish. Since the machine is something that won’t be able to differentiate between living and non-living things, it could pose problems to healthy marine life that we are trying to ‘save.’
  • Cleanup of plastic waste is impossible. Since even the tiniest ocean creatures have been contaminated with plastic bits and pieces, we cannot truly eradicate plastic from the oceans.

Though the Clean Up Array is a wonderful idea for a wicked problem, it is likely insufficient for addressing the issue at its core. Until we get our consumerist, wasteful, petroleum habit in check, the world’s oceans wont be safe – even with genius technology like Boyan Slat’s.

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