How do we clean plastics out of our oceans?

Originally published at: How do we clean plastics out of our oceans? | Boing Boing

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While some healthy skepticism is warranted, I find the naysaying of the marine scientists to be a bit naive, both in terms of their assumptions regarding the problem and the practicality of their recommendations. Yes, it would be ideal to just make less plastic, but that’s essentially a political solution (i.e. not an engineering problem). Yes, cleaning up plastic before it makes its way to the middle of the ocean is likely a better idea, but then what do we do for the plastic that’s already there? Yes, the net effect of The Ocean Cleanup could be neutral or negative, but how do we determine that with any degree of certainty unless we actually pilot and study that process? I say it’s better to attack the problem on many fronts, particularly when we don’t have a complete understanding of the scientific/engineering problem (i.e. how best to get the plastic out), than it is to assume that one potential solution won’t work without any real evidence.

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For scale their peak is removing 2 tons a day of plastic while on average 25 thousand tons of plastic get dumped into oceans each day. This is less than putting a bandaid on a bullet wound.

A global political change is the only possible solution. Every day we don’t face that is another day that we make the problem worse


It would be nice to see some work done on the impact of these activities. It sounds like it would be hard to get much certainty on though to do. The article mentions some bycatch despite the hope that animals will avoid the slow nets. Is it a lot? I wonder if anyone knows the open ocean well enough to say.

Something the article doesn’t mention is neuston. Not everything swims. Some things just float at the top and let currents guide them. No surprise these tend to live in the same places that plastic ends up and I have seen researchers very worried about what these schemes will do to them. But here there’s almost no data…how do you study the impact of trawling on creatures you can basically only collect by trawling?


Colin Jost Shrug GIF by Saturday Night Live


If you give an engineer a political problem, they’ll try to give you an engineering solution.


Solar roadways are an obviously bad idea, just from the point of practicality, that would be obvious to anyone who’s used a road and stopped for 5 minutes to think about it. Identifying the problems with The Ocean Cleanup would require deeper expertise and knowledge in the particular subject matter than is common to the average person. However, at least according to this article, the experts are speculating on what the best course of action might be.

Here’s a better video on this issue: Why TeamSeas Doesn't Work: Their Interceptors - YouTube

However, even in this video, it doesn’t really discuss what to do about the plastic that’s already polluting, and instead focuses entirely on prevention. An ounce of prevention may be worth a pound of cure, but if you need a cure then prevention isn’t enough. Also, many of the recommended solutions require implementing better public services, which would in turn require implementation via the various levels of government. I look forward to Mr. Beast’s next video series on lobbying the federal government!


My point in posting it was not to discuss the solar roads, but the underlying point he’s making - that there is no “simple” solution, and rejecting one set of solutions out of hand to deal with one subset of the problem isn’t helpful. The scientists talking about the prevention of further putting plastic into our environment are correct, and the people seeking to clean up the plastics already there are correct, because both things are part of a larger constellations of solutions. None of this is simple to solve, but if lots of individuals put their expertise to use, then we might get somewhere. FFS, this is not to far off from where Kim Stanley Robinson comes down in his recent book - which shows just that - a variety of people dealing with distinct aspects of our shared problems regarding the environment, and getting to a place where things are improved and could even continue to improse…

Too bad reality is more complex than that. We need engineers and their expertise, but we need lots of other kinds of people working on these problems, too. It’s pretty annoying that far too many engineers have decided that they have all the solutions and refuse to listen to other people with other kinds of expertise. As the video I posted indicated, collective action is required, not fiat rule by technocrats.

Ah. Got ya. You’ve made up your mind, and are in no mood to discuss it. Have a good one, then…


That objection doesn’t make sense though, as it’s an ongoing problem - we don’t need a “cure” (there isn’t one), we need ongoing prevention. It’s not a thing that happened in the past and needs to be cleaned up, we need to be preventing more plastic from continuing to enter the ocean. If your bathtub is overflowing and the taps are still running, it’s incredibly stupid to pretend the solution is to bail it out with a teaspoon.

The problem with these projects is that they’re the things that get all the attention (and money). If the money was being spent on prevention, it would do orders of magnitude more good, but engineers who don’t remotely understand the problem promise flashy, magical solutions that get people excited because they don’t understand the problem either. (It doesn’t help that clueless media then pile on with breathless “reporting” that sexes up the non-solutions.) A lot of government money is being spent on this and similar nonsense efforts.


That’s my overall point… there is no single bullet solution here to this problem. Yes, we need to prevent new plastics from getting into the environment, but we also need to clean up the plastics already there… It seems to me that we should let people deal with the specific issues that they’re interested in dealing with, and that will actually lead to a better outcome overall. These are not mutually exclusive solutions, and I’m not sure why people believe that it’s needs to be one over the other instead of dealing with both?


Yes, reality is more complex than engineering theory allows for, and these types of problems require a broad spectrum approach to resolve, but there’s still room for engineering-types to go try things and see what works. Insisting that they should instead focus on political issues is essentially the same as telling them to not do anything. While people are adaptable, generally speaking, asking people to do something they’re already good at is more effective than telling them do something else. Granted, they shouldn’t act like they know everything, but I suspect the nature of PR requires that they act authoritatively to get any real attention, as the public generally ignores anyone who projects a non-negligible amount of self-doubt.

No, I haven’t made up my mind and don’t want to discuss, I’m trying to say that criticizing a potential solution based on speculation and it not being the best potential solution is short sighted and destructive to the overall cause. In hindsight, I suspect that the cited article is oversimplifies the marine scientists’ response for the sake of conciseness, along with the need to sound authoritative, and I’m misreading it as their full and complete opinion. I just wish the overall take of the article was more along the lines of “this is good, but we need a more complete approach,” instead of “this is likely a waste of time and potentially destructive, we need to do something entirely different.”

Never said otherwise, but once again, as you clearly are not intersted in discussing it, but in simply asserting your position, I’m done, thanks.

Have a good one.

I was merely trying to clarify my point, not to simply assert my position, in response to the original article. It certainly wasn’t meant as some sort of attack on you, so I’m sorry if it came across that way.

The problem is that cleaning up the plastic is extremely difficult and highly problematic (because e.g. you start snagging marine organisms when collecting plastic, with schemes like this one). At a certain point the plastic gets stuck in sediment or broken down to the point where it’s impossible to clean up, as it’s everywhere. (For much of the plastic pollution, it starts that way.) So various forms of prevention (or at least stopping plastic pollution from getting in the oceans) is the most effective way of tackling the issue, until the plastic-eating GM micro-organisms get deployed…

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How to end the current use of platics is absolutely an engineering problem, and a necessary one to solve. Discussing changes that don’t reduce plastic production at all is just obscuring the actual problem. This isn’t a question of political vs. engineering; it’s a question of perpetuating the earth-destroying status quo or not.


Lots of things are difficult, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a solution. :woman_shrugging:

Meme Reaction GIF by Robert E Blackmon

There is a solution - reducing plastic waste; or rather multiple solutions, including proper collection and disposal/recycling, or in a pinch, stopping plastic waste from reaching the oceans. It’s not too different from the CO2 issue - anyone talking about carbon capture as a response right now just isn’t remotely serious.

Doesn’t mean we should not clean up what’s there… it’s not an either/or.

Well no, but one approach is orders of magnitude more effective (and less environmentally problematic).

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