Senior Editor
Something needs to be done... but some researchers think that this isn't it.

Something needs to be done… but some researchers think that this isn’t it.

The Inertia

For the most part, everyone is in love with Boyan Slat’s idea. You know the one: in very simple terms, it’s an ingenious idea to rid the ocean of the plague of plastic that’s floating around in it. His idea is remarkably simple: using the ocean’s natural currents, a floating, v-shaped barrier collects trash and directs it towards a central point. When the central point is full, the plastic collected is picked up and brought to shore for recycling. As of May, Slat and the Ocean Cleanup Project had raised a pretty staggering $31 million. But not everyone’s too happy. “Some scientists think it’s a fool’s errand that won’t come close to solving the problem,” wrote Alessandra Potenza for The Verge.

The $31 million took about seven years to raise, but the brunt of it only came in the last few months when a group of super-wealthy Silicon investors threw money at the project. Lots of money.  Investors include Peter Thiel, the guy who co-founded PayPal then became the first outside investor in Facebook, and Marc and Lynne Benioff, who basically brought cloud computing to the public, and their donations made up about two-thirds of the $31 million.

Slat’s plan is, at its core, a well-meaning one. The Ocean Cleanup plans on launching a flotilla of their floating garbage collectors. If all goes to plan, they say they’ll be able to remove 50% of the plastic that’s currently floating around out there. But many researchers think it’s both a waste of time and money.“Cleaning up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is, in my view, not a very clever way to address this problem,” marine biologist Jan van Franeker said to The Verge. “It’s such a waste of energy.”

Instead, detractors of the Ocean Cleanup think that the money should be spent on recycling facilities and waste management in places that desperately need them. And there are more than a few holes in Slat’s idea–one of the biggest is that researchers don’t know exactly where most of the ocean’s plastic actually is. According to some estimates, only about three percent of it is floating on the surface where Slat’s booms will be able to collect it. The rest is either at the bottom of the ocean or hanging in the water column. Add that to the fact that much of the plastic in the ocean has likely broken down into micr0-plastics already, and the Ocean Cleanup will mostly get the big stuff–ugly, but not at the core of the plastic problem.

Although the Ocean Cleanup claims to have done their homework, it still remains to be seen whether or not they’ll actually be able to do what they say they’re going to do. But while some scientists may think that the money is better spent elsewhere, the Ocean Cleanup is, at the very least, a step in the right direction. The only real solution, though, is simple: humans need to stop using so much plastic. “If you think about it as an overflowing sink, the first thing you’re gonna do before cleaning up the water is to turn the faucet off,” Sherry Lippiatt, the California Regional Coordinator at NOAA Marine Debris Program, says. “That’s the only real long-term solution.


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