Oceans #3: Can We Really Clean Up Ocean Plastic? (Mythbusting)
One main reason cleaning up the ocean is not going to work: so many of us underestimate the wrath of the sea. The many technical challenges are so much bigger than we realise, and while we all desperately wish the magic-bullet solutions will work…the cold hard facts tell a different story.
That’s what oceanographer Kim Martini tells us in this episode. She’s one of the only people to do a scientific peer review of the Ocean Cleanup Project’s feasibility study. The results are very interesting. The main questions we ask her: what exactly are the challenges we’re facing? And is there any hope for cleaning up the ocean, or will we have to live with this plastic soup forever?
Check out the Oceans series page for complementary resources & bonus materials.
Produced by Camille Duran
Published by Eleen Murphy
Senior Editors Eleen Murphy & Camille Duran
Music Credits: License by Ins. Green White Space.
Picture credit: Plastic Oceans Foundation
Camille Duran [CD]: Eleen are you ready I am launching the mythbusting machine.
Eleen Murphy [EM]: Sure, go for it!
CD: It may get loud.
[Voicemail]: Hello my name is Aimee and I would like to know
Can we really cleanup the ocean?
CD: Hi everyone! Today we are going to answer one important question: can we really cleanup the ocean? Is this really possible? Or how much of it can we clean?
EM: Yes! Well done on the song adaptation by the way! I didn’t know you’re able to sing.
CD: Really? Can’t you hear how much I fake it? Studio tricks baby that’s all!
EM: Well,it works!
EM: Camille has been squeezing researcher Kim Martini – or her knowledge, I should say.
EM: We introduced her in the last episode.
CD: I have been challenging her, like everyone who comes on the show.
EM: You’re the man for that alright!
CD: We fight hard to bring you the truth, beloved listeners.
EM: How’s about we jump right in?
CD: Let’s do it.
CD: Can we really cleanup the ocean? We said it’s more of a good-to-know question, really. For those who are just joining us: we believe the real answers to the ocean plastic problem are upstream but yes, we should also consider the feasibility of cleaning up what we can so here we are.
EM: You have a disclaimer message?
CD: I do. The following views can sound a little bit critical. I want to say that we praise the existing efforts of everyone involved in someway in environmental actions. It is important to mobilise engineers, innovators, entrepreneurs and anyone who is interested in giving a hand to find solutions and cleanup what we can of ocean plastic.
EM: Those efforts are very important, keep it going.
CD: What we are challenging with this myth busting episode is the fact that ocean cleanup has been occupying a large majority of the mainstream media space – mainly via the work of Boyan Slat and the Ocean Cleanup Project. This is sometimes steering the debate in the wrong direction, even in most specialised circles.
Together we are going to find out what is possible today – and what we can expect for the years to come.
Spoiler alert! You are probably going to get disappointed.
EM: But! that’ll be productive for the investigation as a whole.
CD: Actually, I’ll go ahead and save your time right now, because you’re busy: if you just want to know if we can cleanup the ocean, the answer is much closer to the no than to the yes – you guessed it. And things are not likely to change anytime soon. Why? because it’s not only a technology issue.
EM: What a spoiler you are Camille.
CD: It’s more productive, that’s all.
EM: Now, if you want to understand the nuances and dig into this with us… stick around!
CD: If by now you know enough, just move on, we won’t get offended, I promise.
EM: So, why did you pick Kim Martini. Who is she? Why should we trust her?
CD: Ok, good question. First because she is an oceanographer.
Kim Martini [KM]: How do I introduce myself? Well, first: hi my name is Dr. Kim Martini. I’m an oceanographer, which means I study the physics of the ocean, and to do that I’ve spent a lot of time deploying instruments in the ocean. Right now I work with how to get the best data from these instruments. But on my side-time, I like to tell people about the ocean, so I do a lot of outreach through blogging or Twitter.
CD: She blogs at Deep Sea News which is a nice channel if you want to follow ocean topics.
KM: I would say that we’re not your normal ocean bloggers, because we like to use popular culture and humour, and cold hard scientific facts to tell people what’s going on in the ocean.
CD: Cold hard scientific facts, humor and pop culture, written by scientists. That sounds like a blog you’d want to read right?
EM: And people I’d like to hang with.
CD: Worth mentioning: she really wants to find cleanup solutions. And that’s an important qualifier for this interview. She wants a clean ocean tomorrow. Like you and me.
KM: I wish. I want to in my heart. I’m on the page with them – I want to see a solution. I want to see something that works. I’m horrified! When I go to the beach, when I go out and there’s stuff everywhere.
EM: Fair enough. She’s not the naysayer we sometimes see in those debates.
CD: No, she hates the idea of being part of that myth busting, but she felt it’s her duty to tell the truth.
EM: And she studied the Ocean Cleanup Project specifically right?
CD: Yes, in great detail. Because when the Ocean Cleanup Project went viral and Boyan Slat finally released a comprehensive feasibility study back in 2014 – hundreds of pages of technical stuff no YouTube viewer would understand – she was asked with her colleague to do a scientific peer review of the study, common practice in the scientific community. But no one else was up for it. So she took care of the engineering part, and her colleague Dr. Miriam Goldstein took care of the biology part.
CD: And you know, before we jump into the technicalities, I want to look at this from a change management perspective because there is something that comes back all the time:
We, human beings, have a big talent for oversimplification. When I look at a question – such as can we clean up the ocean – I want to hear yes or no. I don’t have the time nor the interest to understand the nuances. I just love the story of this young champion that seems to have a plan and that’s what I feel like standing behind.
And this is a classic case with change management stories. Now the reality is ,more complicated than this and we need people to do the homework and look into the details of this (that’s number one). And number two: we need to start getting used to nuances, conditions, variables – and looking at the big picture.
EM: People like Kim help us understand the nuances.
EM: So thank you all, people like Kim.
CLEANING THE OCEAN: ENGINEERING & LOGISTICAL CHALLENGES
EM: So what did you cover first
CD: We started talking about the disproportionate visibility of the Ocean Cleanup Project because it’s probably the most prominent solution to date. It now received millions of dollars of funding and I wanted to ask Kim what we can hope from it.
EM: Yes actually our colleague Sorenza found out that if you go on YouTube and go through the first twenty videos for the search “ocean pollution”, 50% of the views go to the Ocean Cleanup Project.
CD: I am not surprised, the way people responded to Boyan’s narrative is a great illustration of this oversimplification syndrome media audiences are victim of. Here is how Kim puts it:
KM: It’s so compelling because it’s such a simple narrative. “I will use the ocean to clean itself”. It’s a problem because now he’s framing it as: all we have to do is throw a lot of money at the problem, and it’ll solve itself. You don’t have to do anything to change, you’re not personally responsible. It’s so easy. He just frames it as this very easy problem that is solvable with engineering, and I would disagree with that.
CD: General rule of thumb for you busy people with no time to check the feasibility of a solution: when it’s too good to be true…you probably want to keep reservations.
EM: Or call the myth busters!
EM: Can we get into the engineering challenges now?
CD: Sure, that’s Kim’s expertise. Do we have the technology? And will we have it in ten years, fifteen years, etc? I always thought, there must be something usable in the work of the Ocean Cleanup Project, behind all the glitter, there might be stuff we can actually apply today or short-term.
CD [to Kim]: Can you note any substantial progress in the previous years? What is the pace of innovation, and is this going to get somewhere?
KM: I think they’re doing a good effort of trying to address the engineering challenges. I think they’re finally trying to address the bio-fouling challenges. So it seems like they’re moving in the right direction. Those were the two major challenges that we outlined in our review which we wrote four years ago. But I would also say that in our review as well, one of the main points we said is that making deep ocean moorings is really hard.
CD: I pause here for a second. If like me you were wondering what is a deep ocean mooring – it’s like a collection of devices, connected to a wire and anchored on the seafloor. Deep. Really deep in the ocean.
KM: Just to even engineer the structure; so they were going to make the world’s largest ocean structure, to pick up trash. And we said that that’s really hard. That’s a hard technical challenge. We’ve never done that from an engineering standpoint as humans, we’ve never made something that large.
And it was really interesting because we said that moorings are hard four years ago – and it was just this past spring when the Ocean Cleanup Project had a press release that said “Oh yeah, moorings are really hard! We’re going to do this other floating idea”. And I thought, well we already said that four years ago. So it’s like, okay, they are moving forward, but how far forward have they moved on if we said that four years ago?
And I’d also like to point out that having freely floating structures that are freely drafting is another huge technological challenge that has its own incredibly complicated problems.
CD [to Kim]: It looks easy on the slide-show.
KM: Oh, it does look very easy on the slide-show! But it’s not. And I think they really over-simplified the engineering that’s going to be involved in that. They simplify everything. And I mean, that’s what you have to do – if you want to tell somebody about what you’re trying to do and it’s highly technical, you do have to simplify it. You have to make it easy to understand, but you also have to be realistic about the challenges and I don’t think they’re doing this. Because it looks like they have a lot of really technical people, but the ocean is a really mean place. It is really hard on your instruments, it is really hard on anything you put in there. And I think sometimes they really underestimate the wrath of the sea.
CD: So Eleen, here is the first punchline: there are real engineering challenges that tend to be greatly underestimated, and it sounds like we are really far from a solution someone like Kim can really believe in.
EM: How about solutions other than the Ocean Cleanup Project one?
CD: Good question. I asked her what’s the potential of any solution out there?
KM: Oh boy. So it’s a really hard problem…
EM: I like how she calls you boy when she says, “Oh boy”.
CD: Oh yeah? here it is one more time.
KM: Oh boy. So it’s a really hard problem, okay? There’s a lot of plastic, it’s all over the place and at different levels, but it’s also really scattered. So how are you going to do something that’s efficient enough to pick up a lot of plastic, but also pick up a lot of useable plastic and not pick up everything else too. So that’s something people have to think about. You’re scooping up stuff that’s been in the ocean, but you’re not just picking up plastic. If we use a fishing term – there’s by-catch.
CD: That is the problem all technical solutions are confronted with. By-catch.
EM: Yes because it seems plastic is really everywhere, in the arctic, in the deep oceans, at the surface, everywhere really.
CD: So punchline number two: you can’t really pick up plastic without picking up all the other stuff as well, it’s a real fish & plastic soup out there.
EM: Mmmh. But wait, I can go with the idea that we can’t pick up everything, but at least all the big pieces that lie in the patches? That stuff Charles Moore is standing on in his famous videos?
CD: That is exactly what I asked. That stuff should be easy to remove.
KM: I’m not sure that we can. In my limited view – so I wouldn’t say I have a hand on every single type of technology that’s out there – but I really don’t see a good feasible way of going out and picking that stuff up that’s going to work. There’s just so much trash in the ocean!
CD: Something we forget is that the Great Pacific Garbage patch for instance is about the size of Texas.
EM: Actually I’m looking at estimates here and you’re talking about the low range estimate, some estimate fifteen million square kilometers – and that’s around 8% of the ocean surface.
CD: You get the idea. Still I didn’t want to take no for an answer I asked her about the different systems out there, there might me something promising…
We reviewed together the main ideas that have been put forward.
TRASH WHEELS & LOCAL CONTEXTS – SOLUTIONS THAT MIGHT ACTUALLY WORK
KM: For me the ones that I think are the most successful so far are, like, the Baltimore Trash Wheel.
CD: So the Baltimore Trash Wheel is a system that is placed at a river catchment, powered by the river current or solar power, has a big wheel like on the old boats or mills, and it actions a rail that brings up the trash that is floating around, dropping it into a container. They picked over half a million tonnes of trash over the last three years – including nine million cigarette buts, and half a million polystyrene containers.
KM: And it does a really good job!
CD: But …
EM: Oh no there is a but?
KM: But, again, this is a really great solution but it’s only limited to places where you have river inputs, and places where you can actually put it. You’re not going to be able to this in the middle of a shipping channel. So, how are you going to block off the flow? Are you going to do it in a small area? So that one’s limited as well.
CD: It’s limited. But it’s great, that’s where efforts should go towards, developing a multiplicity of local solutions that work for a specific context.
EM: I see. And that’s often on preventing more plastic from getting in the ocean in the first place.
CD: That links to our next punchline: there is no silver bullet. Like with everything, there are so many different situations that the engineering challenges are humongous. You can develop a solution that is tailored to a specific situation like they did in Baltimore but the claim that we can clean up the ocean is just too big.
EM: That makes sense.
CD: In case you are still not convinced, there is another argument that she brought up: collateral damage. By-catch is one of them, as we discussed. But also:
KM: …and because you’re using a net you’re going to catch other fish, or harming things. So there’s always that possibility. I do think that’s a good way to do it, but if you’re going to do that on a large scale, that has it’s challenges too. And also you’re going to use a lot of gas chugging around in two boats, and so you have this other collateral damage, right? So you really have to think of what the cost-to-benefit ratio of all this is.
EM: Yeah, I hadn’t thought about that, all the pollution from such large scale operations. We just have no idea of the size of the problem.
CD: And the financial cost! The capital expenditures from all this. That’s an important point. First – is there any money for this? And if yes…who is going to pay for this? The plastic producers? They don’t even want to hear there is a problem at all.
The business model is very unclear, because a very large majority of this plastic – even if we could collect it – has no value what so ever, which is why it ended up here in the first place. And now it’s degraded and there is a mussel on it. Nothing you can do with that. So that’s another nail in the coffin for the cleanup narrative.
PREVENTING THE PLASTIC LEAK: UPSTREAM SOLUTIONS AND CELEBRATING SMALL VICTORIES
CD: If there are millions and millions of dollars available right now to solve the ocean plastic problem, it should go into preventing the leak.
EM: Yeah, making sure nothing else ever gets in the ocean starting now.
CD: Because right now we are talking about Millions of tonnes every year.
EM: At least eight million tonnes a year actually, that we will probably never be able to catch back.
CD: That’s a good way to put it. And here is the big idea, the more upstream we put our efforts, the more impact, and the cheaper it is to solve in the end.
EM: Upstream. And that’s what we are going to cover in the rest of the series.
CD: But you know I don’t like to give up, I hate to feel we can’t do anything.
EM: I feel you.
CD: I thought that I would ask Kim a different question then. Instead of “can we clean up the ocean”, I asked her how much she believes in a workable solution for reversing the trend – technically reversing the trend. I asked her to score from one to ten – ten being the strongest chances. You know what she told me?
EM: Oh boy?
KM: Oh boy. I’m going to put on my cranky pants for this one. I don’t see a lot of this. I see that we can make a lot of change on how much is going in, so I would say a four. But I would say that what has gone in and what is going in there is so high…and even the future estimates that this might be doubling in ten years are so high that I don’t see how we’re going to get rid of this problem – unless we’re cutting it off from getting into the ocean. Especially since we can’t even get any of it out yet.
EM: Okay, okay. Can we end on a positive note please?
CD: Yeah, let’s try. You are making me think of another point she made, just looking about the efforts to date.
KM: To be fair, these are all projects that have taken a lot of prototyping. They’ve taken a lot of work and iteration, and that’s where we’re at. We’re at the small-scale stuff. We do need bigger scale stuff, but we have to work up from these small victories too. And so I think the Ocean Cleanup Project should think about these type of models in the prototyping they’ve done, because the reality is that the Ocean Cleanup are five years in, and they’ve not removed one piece of trash from the ocean yet. They are twenty million dollars in. The Baltimore Trash Wheel has removed tonnes and tonnes of garbage and they’re only eight hundred thousand dollars in, so a fraction of the cost. And so, that’s a solution that’s working at removing plastic from the ocean. The Ocean Cleanup Project? They’re not yet.
EM: Working from the small victories.
CD: Local specific solutions…
EM: …to prevent plastic from leaking into the ocean in the first place. I see.
CD: You got it!
EM: Can we clean up the ocean? Not really. What’s already there is there and it’s going to be a sad reminder of how pathetic we are.
CD: Boyan Slat cannot save us. Although he is a remarkable entrepreneur with a lot of talent, which we hope he starts deploying towards preventing the eight million tonnes a year that reach the ocean in the first place.
EM: Basically, if you want to go to a beach cleanup on a weekend, or develop a local solution for your city, a student project, that kinda thing – you should. You really should. It’s important.
CD: But technological solutions should really focus on preventing plastic pollution not cleaning it.
EM: For the rest, all the money, media attention and human efforts are better off focusing on upstream solutions.
CD: The people who can really save us work in industry, product and service design, and last but not least policy makers can save us. They need to create the environment for the world to take another direction…but that’s for another day…
EM: Myth number one busted!
CD: We’ll be back soon with more green knowledge, inspiration and entertainment-
EM: And less plastic pollution!
CD: Keep up the good work in the meantime.