Post by guest bloggers: Akira Brathwaite, Julie Groff and Shohei Morita
The infamous “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is estimated to spread over 5.8 million square miles, affecting many oceanic organisms. If we could “hoover up” near half of this plastic soup– should we?
According to a recent post by The Guardian, such an endeavor is becoming more and more likely. In fact, cleanup may start as early as 2020. The world’s largest proposed oceanic cleanup operation, The Oceanic Cleanup Project would construct an elbow of vulcanised rubber and attach it to the sea bed. Composed of an array of floating barriers, this elbow would passively catch plastics deposited by oceanic currents and funnel them to its center for collection and retrieval. The idea is that most of the current will pass underneath the screens, carrying away “neutrally-buoyant” sea life.
Anna Cummin’s 2011 article would have us believe that such a cleanup project is but a “fanciful notion… analogous to sieving the Sahara desert for cigarette butts, or vacuuming America’s highways for bubblegum wrappers.” While neither is impossible, they are rather impractical. Furthermore, her organization, The 5 Gyres Institute, has found no direct link between the pace of land plastic use and increased accumulation in the gyres. So the question must be asked: Will the Ocean Cleanup Project make an impact? If so, what will be the cost?
The technology developed by the Ocean Cleanup Project is still in the testing stage. It is not fully proven to be successful at removing plastics from the ocean, and may even cause further harm to marine life. The barrier sits on the surface of the ocean and is therefore not expected to harm the majority of sea life. However, plankton live primarily on the ocean’s surface and are the nutritional foundation of marine ecosystems. As surface waters flow under and past the barrier, plankton may be caught.
Another limitation to the barrier’s effectiveness is its inability to collect microplastics smaller than 5mm. Even the smallest particles are extremely harmful. Uncollected microplastics can be ingested by marine life, or break down under the sun’s UV rays, releasing harmful chemicals into the food chain. This growth of toxins negatively affects fisheries industries. Toxins that are absorbed by plankton are ingested by fish and are eventually consumed by humans.
With a problem this big, governments and the industries producing the products that eventually become waste should be involved and take responsibility. While supported by the UN, this project is actually funded by the private sector and crowdfunding. In fact, this project will be partially financed through the selling of collected plastics to large companies for use as recycled clothing. It’s doubtful that using technology like the barriers will solve the larger problem of worldwide consumption. To truly reduce plastics in the ocean, a shift in the purchasing habits of consumers is needed. We need to move away from non-renewable materials, the plastics industry, and capitalism.
Despite the uncertainty, the Ocean Cleanup Project is seen by many as the beginning of future innovation and increased success in cleaning the world’s oceans. And honestly, it is a good start. As long as future studies incorporate plankton testing to assess the potential bycatch, this project could make a significant impact on ocean ecosystems. However, research into ways to target microplastics, and a shift away from plastic use, is also necessary to truly correct the problem. In the meantime, the Ocean Cleanup Project will be doing what they can to make a positive contribution to managing ocean pollution.