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There was an online pile-on in early March when critics alleged the Ocean Cleanup nonprofit had staged a video that showed plastic being dumped onto the deck of a ship. Naysayers said the plastic looked too clean to have been recovered from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The nonprofit stood by its story.

For quite a few members of the scientific community, though, the entire kerfuffle about ocean-cleanup technology felt like a sideshow apart from the main event, which they say is the need to stop plastic from reaching the oceans in the first place.

“The reality is that we’re not going to fix this from the point of cleanup in the ocean,” says Christy Leavitt, director of Oceana’s Plastics Campaign.

Critics alleged that the trash collected in a video shot by The Ocean Cleanup was far too clean to have been recovered from the Pacific Garbage Patch, leading to widespread questions about whether cleaning up the trash is a waste of time versus stopping the use of single-use plastics at the source.

Critics alleged that the trash collected in a video shot by The Ocean Cleanup was far too clean to have been recovered from the Pacific Garbage Patch, leading to widespread questions about whether cleaning up the trash is a waste of time versus stopping the use of single-use plastics at the source.

A scientific consensus has been emerging on this point for at least a half-dozen years. It’s not that most experts say trying to collect plastic from the ocean is a total waste of time, so much as they say it’s a labor- and fuel-intensive strategy that can disrupt marine life, and that is woefully overmatched given the scope of the problem.

As just one example, in 2020, a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts declared that it’s “time for a plastic paradigm shift.” That report stated emphatically that there is no single solution to end ocean plastic pollution, and that multiple strategies must be employed.

Quite a few recent studies have added to that thinking, giving scientists a fuller understanding of the issue. Today, more than ever, researchers are urging lawmakers and the public alike to embrace a variety of
approaches to solving the problem.

“There’s been so much new science coming out about the problem of plastics,” Leavitt says. “We’re not just finding it in the oceans,; we’re finding it in remote mountains. There are human health aspects. We’re finding plastics in human blood. The scope of our knowledge about plastics has really increased in the past few years. And, much of the plastic that’s in the oceans is too small to be collected.”

A hermit crab made a home from a PVC plumbing elbow. 

A hermit crab made a home from a PVC plumbing elbow. 

How Much Plastic Is Out There?

Oceana, which is based in Washington, D.C., is one of the leading nonprofits focused on reducing the production and use of plastic. The group sees plastics as an exponentially increasing problem. Leavitt says that while plastics have been around since the 1940s and ’50s, production went into overdrive in the 2000s — especially regarding single-use plastics such as bottles, straws, cutlery and shopping bags.

“Every year, 33 billion pounds of plastic enters our oceans,” Leavitt says. “That’s about two garbage trucks full of plastic being dumped into the ocean every minute of every day, every day of the year.”

And the amount is only expected to increase. The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2050, there will be more than three times as much plastic produced than in 2014. So much of it will end up in the ocean by 2050, the organization says, that the amount of plastic in the water will outweigh fish, pound-for-pound.

Mr. Trash Wheel collects debris from Jones Falls before it reaches Baltimore harbor in Maryland.

Mr. Trash Wheel collects debris from Jones Falls before it reaches Baltimore harbor in Maryland.

Hence the thinking within the scientific community that while ocean-cleanup technology may do some good, it has no prayer of solving the problem.

“If plastic reaches the ocean, we haven’t done our jobs,” says Britta Baechler, senior manager of ocean plastics research for the Ocean Conservancy. “It’s almost too late at that point. And if we don’t stop the flow of it, then cleaning it up becomes almost a moot point.”

Trash-Trapping Technology

The Ocean Conservancy, also a Washington-based nonprofit, distinguishes between ocean-cleanup technology and trash-trapping technology. The group is a big proponent of the latter, which is a sort of technological version of the coastal cleanup events where people physically walk around picking up trash with their hands. Trash-trapping devices can catch a lot of plastic while it’s still upstream, before it gets to the oceans.

“These technologies are a very effective way to reduce plastics in the aquatic environment,” Baechler says. “They trap trash around the clock.”

Hannah De Frond, coordinator for the International Trash Trap Network — a partnership between the Ocean Conservancy and the University of Toronto — says it’s understandable if marina owners or harbormasters don’t know where to start when it comes to installing trash-trapping devices. Factors ranging from wind and currents to local plastic-use trends can affect the kinds of trash that ends up congealing around a local dock. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

Legislators in some states have passed laws banning single-use plastics, such as straws and cutlery.

Legislators in some states have passed laws banning single-use plastics, such as straws and cutlery.

“There are a lot of items out there,” De Frond says of the various available devices. “Through the network, we’ve developed some materials to guide people through the process. Part of our goal is to help people with that.”

Trying to figure out what types of debris are present is a task the Ocean Conservancy is also approaching from the data-analysis level. Anyone doing a beach or harbor cleanup day can log the kinds of trash they find into the Ocean Conservancy’s Clean Swell app. It tracks the proportion and types of debris that are encountered over time.

“This is really important for science,” Baechler says. “Not only does it tell us what’s out there, but it lets us generate these lists of most frequently encountered items — and that is how we create the basis for our advocacy and policy efforts.”

Recycling can help, too, Leavitt says, but people are often surprised to learn how little plastic actually gets recycled. While a lot of boaters diligently collect bottles and the like for recycling companies to haul away back on shore, the vast majority of plastic ends up somewhere else.

Two vessels from The Ocean Cleanup tow a trash and plastic collecting device in the Pacific Garbage Patch.

Two vessels from The Ocean Cleanup tow a trash and plastic collecting device in the Pacific Garbage Patch.

“Only 9 percent of all the plastic waste generated has been recycled. In the U.S., plastic recycling rates in 2021 were below 6 percent,” she says. “The reality is that a lot of it just doesn’t get recycled. It’s like trying to mop up the water from an overflowing bathtub while the faucet is still running. What we really need to do is turn off that faucet and stop the production of these single-use plastics.”

Developing Policy Positions

Leavitt describes policy arguments regarding plastics as a classic showdown between the petrochemical industry and environmentalists. It’s not necessarily that consumers are demanding more plastic products, but instead that the marketplace is being flooded with them for the companies’ financial gain.

“That’s what oil and gas companies have been pushing on the public,” she says. “As society moves toward non-fossil-fuel alternatives for transportation, and heating and cooling, the petrochemical industry is looking for other alternatives to sell their product. Plastics are one of those alternatives.”

The World Economic Forum’s research supports that claim, with an estimate that plastic production will grow to 20 percent of global oil consumption by 2050. A lot of that production, Leavitt says, will be the kinds of single-use plastics that end up in the oceans.

“They are created from a material that’s made to last forever, but they’re designed to be thrown away after one use,” she says. “We’re focused on this because a lot of the single-use plastic is unnecessary, and 40 percent of the plastics produced every year is for single-use plastics and packaging. That’s what we’re seeing in the beach cleanups.”

Baechler also sees single-use plastics as a perennial problem at beach cleanups. As just one example, in 2021, the Ocean Conservancy’s research landed plastic cutlery on the Top 10 list of found items for the first time.

That’s the kind of data that leads to policy prescriptions, such as state- and local-level bans on items ranging from plastic bags in grocery stores to plastic utensils at county fairs.

“In some places, like Washington, D.C., they’ve been able to look at the local rivers and count the number of bags and foodware they found before these policies and after these policies,” Leavitt says. “They have seen a significant reduction.”

Organizations, including Oceana, are now urging policymakers to enact similar restrictions on plastic use nationwide. For instance, Leavitt strongly supports the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, a bill in the U.S. Congress that would phase out use of single-use products such as plastic utensils. “Those are the policies that actually lead to change,” she says.

How To Take Action Today

Leavitt, Baechler and De Frond all say there are steps that boaters, dealers, builders, harbormasters, marina operators and others throughout the marine industry can take today to help reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in the oceans.

De Frond says that for anyone with a waterfront presence, installing some type of trash-trapping device is one place to start. The devices can be as substantial as Mr. Trash Wheel — which has a 14-foot water wheel that collects as much as 38,000 pounds of trash in a single day from Jones Falls before it reaches Baltimore Harbor — to simple catch bags placed in storm drains to stop debris from progressing any farther toward the ocean.

Another easy starting point is to host a local beach or harbor cleanup day, inviting customers and the public to participate and log the information about what they find. Larger events such as National Cleanup Day are also an option. This year, it’s scheduled to take place September 17.

And, anyone whose business includes packaging products can look to use more eco-friendly packaging materials. Such changes can be good not only for helping to keep plastic out of the oceans but also for business marketing.

“People are concerned about this issue,” Leavitt says. “Oceana did a poll this year that found eight in 10 voters support policies that reduce single-use plastics. We know that there’s strong concern.”

Anyone hosting a regatta, rendezvous, boat show or other event can skip the plastic straws and cutlery and offer attendees more environmentally friendly options. For ideas about that, Leavitt recommends working with Sailors for the Sea, an Oceana-related organization that offers sustainability certification for water-based events. The group has worked with sailing races, marina managers and others, creating 20 best practices for organizers to follow.

And, yes, it’s also perfectly fine to hope that ocean-cleanup technology is working in a way that is helping, De Frond says. The Ocean Cleanup took some heat during the controversy about its video in early March, but as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. All of that controversy stirred up a whole lot of headlines that kept the topic of ocean plastic front and center.

“The Ocean Cleanup has clearly attracted attention and gotten people talking all around the world. That’s a good thing,” De Frond says. “These devices are interesting. They’re like trash-capture robots. People of all ages are interested in them. Aside from their original purpose, these devices are helping in other ways.”

But we just shouldn’t pin all of our hopes on ocean-cleanup technology of that nature, Leavitt says, because ultimately, “it’s just not going to be enough.” 

This article originally appeared in the July 2022 issue.



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