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“Those Crazy Plastic Cleaning Machines”

March 28, 2013

I expressed some skepticism that a teenager’s oceanic plastic hoover concept could easily make the jump to the real oceanic world.

Manuel Maqueda at KUMU, is a little more blunt:

If I had a dime for each brilliant idea to “clean up the “Garbage Patch” that has been forwarded to me over the last few years I would be a millionaire.

These gyre cleanup machines, devices and foundations that emerge periodically are not going to happen. However they are likely to get lots of media attention –and distract from the real solutions.

These more or less sophisticated delusions and fantasies of massive offshore cleanups testify to how misunderstood our plastic pollution problem is, and how disconnected we are from nature in general, and from our oceans in particular.

Apart from Maqueda’s justified skepticism about how far it is from the drawing board to the restless, relentless, inhospitable oceans, he argues that our main focus should be on keeping plastic from getting into the ocean in the first place:

Another key detail that seems to be consistently forgotten is that millions of tons of new plastic trash are entering the ocean as we speak. A fairly old and conservative study estimated that 6.4 million tons of plastic waste enter the ocean every year –adding up to over 100 million tons of plastic already polluting our oceans.

Trying to clean this spiraling mess with ships or machines would be like trying to bail out a bathtub with a tea spoon… while the faucet is running! [snip]…

…The inconvenient truth is that we are using plastic, a toxic and very durable material that lasts centuries,for packaging and single use applications, that is to create things are designed to become garbage after a short use. And we are doing this at a massive scale to the benefit of a few corporations, to the detriment of all.

We have created a spiraling consumer culture and then turned it into a throwaway culture. Unless you stop this first, “cleanups” are futile.

That’s all very true, and I wouldn’t hesitate to support a worldwide ban on plastic bags (which are pernicious, and constantly being found en masse in the stomachs of dead sea creatures). Or a worldwide ban on plastic bottles. Or gratuitous plastic packaging (and here comes my usual, increasingly plaintive pitch: just price in the environmental and health impacts, and presto, people change their behavior!).

But still. These are times to think big. To take on the impossible. To look for silver bullets. So at the same time we are working to keep plastic out of the oceans, I am all in favor of garage nerds tinkering and dreaming about ways to remove some of the plastic that is already IN the ocean. Maybe there is some teen out there thinking up some crazy bioengineering or genetic engineering solution that Maqueda cannot even yet imagine. You never know.

(Thanks to Jordan Waltz for flagging Maqueda’s pushback).

2 Comments leave one →
  1. vamfun permalink
    March 31, 2013 1:11 am

    You have captured a few of the concepts that I posted a while back here plus a few more I wasn’t aware of.
    We need to attack this as a total systems problem. Keeping plastic waste out of the oceans with purposful prevention only goes so far. Natural disasters like the Japanese tsunami that poured millions of tons of plastic into the oceans will always be present. We will eventually have better plastic technology that will be ocean friendly but its a long ways off. So I applaud the young thinkers of the world who are working on taking a share of the plastic by filtering the oceans. Every bit helps.

    BTW, Boyan Slat has not yet considered his sea extraction array concept feasible…. and is currently only 1/4 of the way done with his study which he is taking very seriously.


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