When flight MH370 disappeared without trace on 8th March 2014, apparently somewhere over the southern Indian Ocean, the world’s media following the search and scrutinising the satellite images were astounded at the sheer volume of debris and detritus of our lives strewn across the ocean, that were mistaken for bits of broken plane.
For those of us involved in marine environmental issues, there was less surprise than sad resignation. This is what we’ve been trying to explain for years.
Plastic and other waste in the oceans is a huge problem that, prior to the exposure in the wake of the plane’s disappearance, had failed to attract widespread attention.
Living on an Indian Ocean island – Zanzibar – ocean plastic is impossible to ignore. Because it isn’t littering some scarcely conceivable and distant expanse of open ocean, it’s right here on the beach at our feet. It washes in from the ocean on every tide, and regrettably, still more is dumped in streets, bushes and beaches, and washes from our streets and drains into the ocean, every time it rains.
Plastic waste, even from landlocked cities, is washed into rivers and to the ocean. From tiny plastic granules in facial scrubs to whole containers that fall off ships, we’re contaminating our precious ocean with reckless abandon.
Once in the ocean, pieces of plastic become coated with other waterborne pollutants such as glues, oil and pesticides, and many are eaten by fish, birds and turtles, which may die, releasing the plastic to be eaten again, or be eaten themselves by predators (such as tuna) in whose bodies the pollutants accumulate. Over time, plastic degrades, breaks into smaller smaller particles, and releases more chemicals and aggregates more pollutants that further impact oceanic life and get into the food chain. Our food chain.
To solve this problem will require significant action, and an accordingly ambitious idea was conceived by 19-year-old Boyan Slat in 2012. He proposes to install what I can best describe as a benevolent eco-kraken robot in the centre of each oceanic gyre. The device would consist of an array of floating booms several kilometres long, guiding waterborne plastic debris to a central processing platform, that filters it out and consumes it. These
eco-krakens ocean clean-up arrays could, he claims, clean up the ocean of plastic debris within a decade.
Will this really work? This critical article by 5 Gyres-founder Stiv Wilson says no, it won’t.
My initial reaction might have been disappointment. Setting aside simply how cool eco-kraken robots would be, to solve colossal global problems like this one requires people with the imagination to come up with big, creative and innovative ideas, and it’s a shame for them to be so roundly knocked down. It would be so nice to think we – or better still, some more elusive ‘they’ – could make the problem go away as easily as that.
However – by the time I’d finished reading the critique, I was still feeling optimistic. From the penultimate paragraph (emphasis mine):
Here’s something that will blow your mind—to clean the ocean of floating plastic, you don’t need to go out and get it, it will come to you. … upon each orbit of a gyre, the gyre will spit out about half its contents. These contents will then either enter another current or gyre or wash up on land. As this repeats, it means that eventually*, all the plastic in the ocean will be spit – out which is why you find plastic fragments on every beach in the world. Beach cleanup is gyre cleanup.
*provided we aren’t continually replacing it with new plastic, mind you!
Maybe that means no eco-kraken robots. But …we already know how to fix this. Many of us are already doing it. It’s not free, but it’s easy, and doesn’t need to cost much at all. If we keep up our collective efforts to clean beaches and stop our rubbish from ending up there in the first place, the ocean waste will eventually come back to us.
But it gets better even than that. The pioneer behind the eco-kraken robot idea didn’t let this get him down – he stood his ground and did his research. He has responded to this criticism with a 530 page feasibility report, summarised here, which amounts to a comprehensive and pretty convincing rebuttal of the objections…
… so just maybe, ccean clean-up arrays may yet be a viable tool in the arsenal to clean up our oceans – and eco-kraken might live after all.