The Best Way to Deal With Ocean Trash
Tony Haymet, former director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, has heard hundreds of ocean cleanup plans. Late at night, over many beers, he’s come up with a few dozen of his own. None of them, he says, has seemed likely to work.
That includes this spring’s offerings. A Dutch engineering student, Boyan Slat, envisions a contraption with massive booms that would sweep debris into a huge funnel. Songwriter and music producer Pharrell Williams wants to fund the monumental cost of any cleanup by turning recycled ocean plastic into yarn and then clothes.
The challenge is huge. For one thing, the garbage is spread over millions of square miles. For another, it’s made up mostly of degraded plastic, broken down by sunlight and waves into tiny bits the size of grains of rice.
“That’s what makes it so horrifying,” Haymet says. “The micro-plastic is the same size as the stuff living in the water column. How would we ever go out and collect it? So far no one’s come up with a plan to separate all the micro-plastic from the living life that’s the same size.”
In the face of growing criticism, Slat had to back off his optimistic boast that he could clean up the oceans in five years. He posted a notice on his website asking the media and the critics to wait until he finishes his research.
Meanwhile, the garbage keeps growing.
Consider this alarming statistic from CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, which is wrapping up a three-year study of marine debris: Every decade global production of plastics doubles. Even if someone came up with a workable collecting mechanism, how much impact could it have?
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