Why trying to clean up all the ocean plastic is pointless

Discarded plastic bags and other waste float over a shallow coral reef in Raja Ampat, Indonesia.

Discarded plastic bags and other waste float over a shallow reef in Raja Ampat, Indonesia.
Photo: Ethan Daniels (AP)

cleaning plastic It might seem like a good idea, no doubt. After all, the oceans make up more than 70% of our planet, and we basically destroyed them. The world empties 17.6 billion pounds (8 billion kilograms) of the new plastic in the oceans every year.

There is a lot of focus on cleaning files Plastic is already in the ocean Partly because it’s so visible. But some experts argue that we very He focused on completely removing all waste from the ocean — which has reached a point that is arguably completely impossible to clean up — and hasn’t worked enough on the real solution: stop producing things in the first place.

Increased plastic production means the amount of plastic waste dumped in the oceans could triple Over the next few decades. As the world begins to shop on Black Friday and prepares for Internet Monday, thinking about how to end this cycle has never been more important — even if the solutions are more complex than simply cleaning up the mess that already exists.

To sort out some of these issues, I reached out to Max Liboiron, an assistant professor at Memorial University in Newfoundland and a leading researcher on plastic pollution. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Molly Taft, Earther: We are qualified to believe that cleaning up the oceans is a pure good, which is why projects with such lofty goals of getting all the trash out of the sea seem to have such a culture. What is complicated about this hypothesis?

Max Liboiron: One of the things that’s really important to understand is that cleaning up the oceans is fundamentally different than something like cleaning up litter on the street. That’s mostly because of scale problems. The stuff we’re really familiar with at the scale of being a human does not track into the ocean because the ocean is the biggest thing in the world.

You actually have a scale problem where you cannot clean up the ocean in any way at a rate that is commensurate with the amount of plastic going into it. Microplastics are some of the smallest things in the world. They’re smaller than a grain of rice, and they’re in one of the biggest things in the world from a numbers standpoint.

When we teach pollution science, which is different than litter science, what we teach people is that it’s called a stock-and-flow problem. The best metaphor is, OK, you walk into your bathroom and your bathtub is overflowing. Do you, a) turn off the tap, or b) get a mop? I mean, eventually you’ll do both, but you better turn off that tap before you start mopping up or you will never stop mopping up and you will never catch up to the water spilling out. That’s a great model for job security but a horrible model for dealing with pollution.

Earther: There’s this big Clean-up initiative now on YouTube It has a stated goal of raising $30 million in donations to clean up 30 million pounds of waste from the ocean. It sounds like, based on what you’re saying, 30 million pounds might seem like a lot to us, but it’s actually not in the grand scheme of things.

Liborone: it’s not like that. I can find you 30 million pounds, say, right out of town with your washed fishing gear.

Earth: Oh really?

Liborone: completely. I live in Newfoundland, Labrador, which is a fishing province. What is the net gill net 200 pounds? 300 pounds?

Earth: are you serious?

Liborone: Yes, I can get that in a hot minute. We have some serious Libra issues.

Earth: What about the argument that cleaning things up there would definitely have some benefit? Have people modeled the trade-offs of letting the plastics in the ocean hang in exchange for trying to clean up some?

Liborone: Any math on it would be highly questionable for several reasons. The main numerical problem that we will try to design is: What do you mean that plastics cause harm?

My specialty is animals that swallow plastic, and animals, specifically, that people eat. Your normal animal will eat and excrete the plastic just fine because your normal animal also eats things like fish, which have bones, and squids that have super tough squid beaks that you can cut yourself. There are problems like tangles, sure. Is there more entanglement with fishing gear than bycatch? This is unknown, and difficult to measure because no one watches ghost hunting.

The question has not become, is cleaning worth it compared to turning off the tap? We know closing the tap is better. Point.

If you want to clean — and in some places you actually have to — there are better and worse ways to clean. Beach cleaning? just awesome. Those trash wheels in bays, putting things at the end of sewage drains and rainwater drains? Absolutely. These are great ways to do cleaning. There are many places in the world where these things are necessary, because if you shut off sewers and you have a rainy season, you have climate change that offsets plastic pollution, then there’s a cluster problem. So, yes, cleaning is absolutely necessary in a lot of places.

Earth: You read an article you wrote a couple of years ago and you had a really great idea of ​​how plastic existed in a time frame beyond what we can understand.

Liborone: Yes really. Plastic exists in geological time.

Earth: what does that mean?

Liborone: It goes against the time of the species. People talk about different time eras – the Paleolithic, Jurassic, etc. They are talking about the time of the species. Dinosaurs were one of the longest-living species and have faded away. Not because we are doomed, right? That’s just how the genres roll. Plastic lasts longer than that. Plastic is longer than the ages.

Earth: Yes, this is wild.

Liborone: If you want to get to the nitty-gritty, that includes the polymers, or the plastic itself, but also some of the chemicals associated with it. Even if you burn the plastic, and you end up with some plastic chemicals and slag, these two materials last longer than the types. Even if you cut or burn the plastic. Or bury them or send worms after them. They will last longer than the types, just in a slightly different form.

Earth: I don’t think people really understand that.

Liborone: Yes, it’s as if inventing plastic was a rather bad idea.

But let’s say you collected this plastic. What are you going to do about it? You can never freely recycle any plastic for a number of reasons, including that it is terribly unrecyclable. They have ocean sex, and they are very diverse. So even if you just put them in a landfill, that’s great, now they’re there for, what, another 400 years to 1,000 years? Fine. And then the landfill will be covered in water as the climate changes, or just because that’s what happens to the planets, and they’ll come back up and back into the ocean. While you’re shuffling the plastic around, you’re just putting off the problem.

This is why closing the tap is so important. If you go back to the wiping analogy, eventually the water will rise above the level of the bucket you are wiping, and will come back up again with all the other water.

Earth: Correct me if I’m wrong here, but it’s as if we accidentally created another compound, like, on Earth. This is on hold forever.

Liborone: There is a group forgot the so-called. It’s like – the universal association of people who call the ages. [ملاحظةالمحرر:Liboironيشيرإلىاللجنةالستراتيغرافيةالدولية،وهيجزءمنالاتحادالدوليللعلومالجيولوجية،وهي[Editor’snote:LiboironisreferringtotheInternationalStratigraphicCommissionpartoftheInternationalUnionofGeologicalScienceswhichisResponsible for naming geological periods.] They’re geologists, rock people, and they talk about the Anthropocene – there’s actually a scientific question for the Anthropocene. This new era, this new era of species, is marked by human activity. The great debate among geologists is what is [geologic] Signal will we use it to celebrate this era? The two contenders are plastics or nuclear dust from atomic bombs.

Earth: Oh shit.

Liborone: These will go on forever in the geological record.

Earth: This is very bleak.

Liborone: Yes, it’s a great discussion.

Earth: People who think we can solve the problem of plastic in the ocean may find this conversation very problematic and that the alternative is fatalism. What do you say to people who want to find solutions to this problem?

Liborone: I was saying turn off the tap the whole time. Turn off the tap, turn off the tap. This is what we do. And we can name who’s running the tap. Coca Cola. Exxon Mobil. We have their phone numbers.

The continued and prolific growth of oil has been jeopardized by climate change and renewable energy. These stacked stones, turning those efforts into plastic. This is the good news, in fact, because it has changed before and could change again. We have an operating manual which is a climate change manual. It’s pretty much identical to the climate change evidence, even some of the actors themselves.

If you compare it to climate change, people sometimes say, “Yeah, we should get the carbon out of the air.” And we do a little of it. But no one believes under any circumstances that this will solve the problem of climate change. It is exactly the same plastic.

Earth: What would you say to people who have concerns about plastics entering our food streams and entering marine life? It’s clearly a whole lot of bad things about plastic versus the unthinkable and what could be good, something we can live with.

Liborone: There are two ways to think about the harms of animals eating plastic – and they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. One is moral or ethical, where you say, “This is broken. This is wrong. It should never happen.” Yes really. I totally agree it’s over. It does not matter whether it harms the animal or not. It’s over, 100%. The second way to think about it is from a scientific point of view. The harm, whether it’s physical, environmental or population level, that’s been proven on those scales, to a large extent, eating plastic does no harm to animals.

The example you can think of is a dog. Domestic dogs eat a lot of plastic because they eat toy stuffing or just about anything else they find. They eat plastic all the time. Yes, sometimes dogs have to go to the vet because they have a blockage and if they don’t deal with it, they will die. Is this most dogs? No. Is this dangerous for dogs? No. Is this taken advantage of for some individual dogs? Absolutely.

Earth: So what is your biggest scientific concern?

Liborone: My biggest concern is the strength of the petrochemical industry. Canada is about to end its support for oil. This is more important in terms of impacting the scale of plastic pollution than any form of cleaning that takes place.

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