Our thoughts on the Ocean Cleanup

By September 11, 2018Blog
We are being sent so many notifications about the launch of the Ocean Cleanup boom which claims to be able to clean-up the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ within 5 years. Whilst we would love this to be a huge success, we do have reservations, as do many in the scientific and NGO communities. We are firm believers in prevention being the best way to tackle this problem and understand that the Ocean Cleanup team are beginning to focus their attention on river mouths and that is the most logical way to stop large pieces of plastic heading out to the ocean. Where they become brittle and continue to break up in to ever-decreasing particles, which we know are entering the food chain, and releasing associate hazardous chemicals in the process. The device is designed to trap large, floating pieces of plastic but the majority of the plastic at the centres of the oceans have already broken up into ‘microplastics’.  Plastic travelling from the coast becomes brittle, the longer it is exposed to saltwater, sunlight and wave action and it breaks up into tiny pieces on that journey.

There is no ‘Floating Island of Trash’ as anyone who has watched our documentary feature, A Plastic Ocean, will have seen, from the footage we filmed at the centre of the so-called ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’. Although there are a few larger pieces, which could well end up trapped by the boom, it’s the tiny fragments that pose the most insidious problem to the ocean and ultimately human health. These microplastics fragments are mixed in with the life-giving plankton and separating those harmlessly from the plastic would be impossible. (There was talk of ‘centrifuging’ the samples to separate the plankton out but that would kill anything living.)

We sampled the ocean surface as well as sampling 2 metres below it and found that the majority of the plastic and plankton was in the surface samples. Fish might well be able to swim below the barrier but the zooplankton and phytoplankton are likely to be trapped. It seems that the more successful the device is, the more life could end up in it. Discarded fishing gear is a fairly common problem now that it is made from plastic instead of natural materials and removing these is a good idea, as long as anything living is released.  However, incentives to stop these from being abandoned in the first place would sure be a better way to deal with the issue.

Scientists have estimated that it can take up to 20 years for plastic leaving our shores to reach the ocean centres. Considering the fact that we have produced more plastic in the last decade than the whole of the previous century, there is still a vast amount heading out that way. Is it therefore realistic to suggest that the oceans will be cleaned of plastic by this device within the next five years? With 8 million tonnes of plastic entering the oceans ever year, we believe that our efforts should be stemming the tide and that is why we are concentrating on raising awareness through education and sustainable practice.

Many millions of dollars were donated to the Ocean Cleanup, we hope that this will be used wisely so that the scientists they are working with and the research into stopping the problem at source will become the overall focus and that efforts will be increased at the river mouths. We do question the big spend on buying a heavy-lift aircraft to survey plastic. Enough scientists have travelled to the ocean centres to report back with the same information, that there is no floating island of plastic.

For further info, please look at the following sources:

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/05/critics-say-plan-drifting-ocean-trash-collectors-unmoored

http://kumu.cc/2013/03/27/those-crazy-plastic-cleaning-machines/