Expedition Gyre

The ocean is so full of trash, it’s easy to create an entire art exhibition from it. Expedition Gyre hopes that the resulting display will get people who view it to think about their consumption and how so much of the stuff humanity uses or throws away ends up in the oceans.

More here, here, and here.

It’s heartbreaking to see the reality of our consumption culture. So more power to the Expedition Gyre team. They are certainly getting lots of media play. However, in my view there is one thing, and one thing only, which will make a real difference: levy an environmental tax on every item of packaging and plastic, and charge for any garbage that is not recycled. Art can inspire. But make people pay, and they change their behavior. Fast.

“Those Crazy Plastic Cleaning Machines”

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).

Sweeping The Oceans Clean

So a teenager has designed a system to hoover up large amounts of plastic pollution from the ocean:

19-year-old Boyan Slat has unveiled plans to create an Ocean Cleanup Array that could remove 7,250,000 tons of plastic waste from the world’s oceans. The device consists of an anchored network of floating booms and processing platforms that could be dispatched to garbage patches around the world. Instead of moving through the ocean, the array would span the radius of a garbage patch, acting as a giant funnel. The angle of the booms would force plastic in the direction of the platforms, where it would be separated from plankton, filtered and stored for recycling.

This is exactly the sort of ambitious, creative, silver-bullet thinking that I believe is one of our only hopes to try and slow or reverse the growing and regrettable impact humans are having everywhere on the planet.

There is, of course, a huge difference between design and execution, and I know enough about the sea, and the law of unintended consequences, to know that successful operation of something like this is far from certain. Still, nicely done and we can only hope that the ranks of technology entrepreneurs aiming to protect the planet keep growing.

Here’s the non-profit Slat founded to try and make his idea a reality.And here is Slat explaining his concept at TedX: