Science-Based Solutions Reject Boyan Slat's Approach to Rid the Ocean of Plastic
Decades-old notions of mythical plastic islands and garbage patches invoked hundreds of cleanup schemes, like the Dutch organization "Ocean Cleanup Project's" (OCP) 60km-wide Net Array. While the media sensationalism in the early 2000's created plenty of public outcry, we still today battle misconceptions about the efficacy of ocean cleanup. The latest effort of OCP in the North Pacific and the subsequent public messaging warrant a reminder of the latest science on the issue and some constructive feedback moving forward.
Boyan Slat's Ocean Cleanup Project's “Net Array." Photo credit: Ocean Cleanup Project
While capture and reclamation of ocean plastics are attractively simple, and can be justified for recovering navigational hazards from lost fishing nets and line, our research has ultimately led us to believe that these types of concepts are not an effective approach to deal with plastic pollution. The 5 Gyres Institute with eight other colleagues conducted 24 ocean expeditions, over 100k ocean miles over seven years, producing the first global estimate of all plastics in all oceans. As a result 5 Gyres strongly advocates upstream design and policy solutions to clean up the oceans. Our history with Dutch ingenuity goes back several years.
You've got to love the Dutch and their marvelous technical approach to managing the ocean, with dams, docks and dredges making their life below sea-level warm and cozy. We met one such engineer, Dutch astronaut Wubbo Johannes Ockels, back in 2010 aboard the Stad Amsterdam studying plastic in the middle of the Indian Ocean Gyre. We listened to him describe giant man-made plastic trash islands in the shape of pinwheels that would spin with the aid of large wind-driven parachutes, catching more plastic and creating more real estate for people to live on.
Boyan Slat, founder of OCP, explained his alternate idea to us over dinner in Amsterdam two years later, as a 60 kilometer-wide net and boom system that passively captures drifting plastic. With wide public support he remains undeterred, despite wide criticism from the scientific community on mechanical design and ecological impacts. OCP has now completed a journey across the North Pacific with 30 vessels, called the Mega Expedition. We respect and admire innovation, but feel the need to offer some important suggestions.
Ecological Impacts Must Be Thoroughly Evaluated
After our meeting in Amsterdam with OCP, then again in Long Beach, we both participated in an online webinar to discuss the efficacy of the Net Array, with its 60km sweeping arms.
OCP's feasibility study acknowledges that neutrally buoyant marine life will sink and go under the net. When asked during the webinar about the passive floating organisms that do not swim, Slat was not aware of them. The potential for "bycatch" is too great to be ignored. Organisms like the beautiful purple janthina snail, rafting barnacles and numerous jellies, like the wind-driven velella velella, could amount to tens of millions of organisms captured over a short time.
Janthina snail with a common jellyfish called “By the Wind Sailor. Photo credit: Peter Parks / Norbert Wu Productions
Gooseneck barnacle on it's own raft.
The solution here is to produce a proper Environmental Impact Report (EIR) from an outside agency. Though we're thoroughly impressed with Slat's "big picture" thinking, he must conform to the ethical standards of any structural development of this magnitude. Knowing the full environmental impact of his project is currently missing from the OCP plan.
New Science Calls for New Directions
There are no islands of plastic, rather a smog of plastic that pervades the oceans. The last four years have produced more research publications on plastic marine pollution than the previous four decades. We understand the problem differently. Our study estimates 269K tons from 5.25 trillion particles globally, of which an astounding 92 percent were particles smaller than a grain of rice, or microplastic.
While an earlier global study of microplastics showed a 100x less on the sea surface than expected, supporting our understanding that the sea surface is not the final resting place. Researchers have now found microplastic and synthetic fibers frozen into ice cores, abundant on the sea floor and on every beach worldwide. Along the way it passes through the bodies of billions of organisms. We now understand that the ocean is moving our trash toward the subtropical gyres, shredding it into microplastic and then distributing it worldwide above and below the waves.
Ocean Recovery Efforts are “Too Late" in the Game to Capture Most of the Trash
The OCP's Net Array is "too late" in the pathway of trash. The science of plastic in the ocean shows us that the plastic entering the ocean is shredding rapidly into microplastic. It's mostly small stuff out in the gyres, except for large persistent fishing gear. OCP will mostly capture fishing gear, which is designed to persist at sea (the Mega Expedition has demonstrated this).
Nations are clamoring to stop the flow of trash in their rivers, based on a recent study by Jenna Jambeck identifying the individual contributions of plastic pollution from 192 countries. Jambeck estimates 4-12 million tons of plastic washing down the world's rivers. OCP's recovery innovations, if brought upstream, will capture more plastic before it degrades and impacts marine life, and more than likely at less cost than the Net Array.
What's out there now is leaving the gyres faster than we think. Drifting balls of tar give us some precedent to understand this. Tarballs were polluting beaches worldwide a lot more in the 1970s than today. As soon as international Maritime Law in the 1980's stopped oil tankers from washing out oil residues into the sea, we witnessed a rapid decline in tarballs on beaches. The plastic out there now will not be on the surface forever, with the likely endgame being the seafloor.
It is Worthwhile Going After the Macroplastic That's Out There Now?
Yes, the navigational hazards created by derelict fishing gear costs the maritime industry 100's of millions of dollars annually and warrant some action. At the same time, large plastics are rapidly becoming microplastics, with horrible repercussions for marine life.
From our global estimate research we found that only 8 percent of the plastic objects in the ocean are macroplastics larger than a grain of rice. Although that 8 percent represents most of the weight of trash in the ocean, more than 70 percent of it is derelict fishing gear (lost nets, line and buoys). It's useful to capture what's out there before it becomes microplastics or damages vessels.
At the 2015 G7 meeting in Germany, plastic marine pollution solutions were put on the table, including Fishing for Litter as the only viable ocean cleanup program, and described as “a useful last option in the hierarchy, but can only address certain types of marine litter."
When Slat and I had our webinar last summer I asked him at the very end, “Of the $2 million you've raised so far, would you consider funding a small incentivize recovery program, like Fishing for Litter in the North Pacific to see if fishermen could collect more trash at sea, more efficiently and cheaper, than you can?“
What we know is that similar incentivized recovery programs are proving to be successful in the North Sea and around Scotland. In Korea a $10 incentive per 100 liter bag of trash picked up by fishermen is working. But again, this is only a temporary solution.
We advocate solutions to derelict fishing gear that create Extended Producer Responsibility—EPR, like net tagging or lease programs for fishing fleets, where nets, buoys and lines are borrowed and returned, and heavy fines if lost. Slat followed the webinar with “No."
The Mega Expedition's Claims Need to Be Revisited
All data is useful data. Based on an idea suggested by Charles Moore last year when we all sat down in Long Beach, California, Slat arranged for 30 boats to sail from Hawaii back to the west coast of North America. OCP claims it has collected more data than all previous science work in the last 40 years and will provide the most updated analysis of plastic in the world's oceans. Both of these statements need clarification.
First, the last 40 years amounts to 11,000 samples. There is simply not enough time for 30 boats in three weeks to even come close to match this. Second, this is not a global analysis. It is a snapshot of the ocean in one place for, one month, in one year, and is heavily biased by the 2011 Japanese Tsunami.
OCP is surveying the one place in the ocean where oceanographer Nikolai Maximenko has predicted the debris field from the 2011 Japanese Tsunami now resides. OCP is measuring the effects of a catastrophic event—a plastic pollution anomaly.
When 5 Gyres and Algalita teamed up to sail from Tokyo to Hawaii in 2012, we studied the sub-surface debris field of tsunami debris, and found plenty of it. Thanks to modeling work done by the IPRC, we knew very well that by 2015-2016 all of what we saw would be in the accumulation zone between Hawaii and California, where the Mega Expedition recently surveyed.
The one significant scientific contribution that OCP can make is to compare the 2015 Mega Expedition snapshot data to all previous data in the same region to see how early levels of plastic marine pollution compare to the catastrophic event that was just recently sampled.
Constructive Suggestions for Ocean Cleanup Project:
1. Consider moving the Net Array upstream to capture trash before it fragments. Many countries around the world are deploying structures of all kinds to catch trash downstream, from nets to waterwheels, with the last stop at river mouths. OCP could contribute their engineering expertise to the growing industry designing systems to tackle waste upstream.
2. OCP must produce a thorough environmental impact statement. There is the potential for the Net Array to capture significant bycatch, therefore a thorough environmental impact statement from an outside agency is necessary.
3. Examine alternatives. It would be a cost effective exercise to support an incentivized program for fisherman to recover plastic pollution in the region where OCP plans to deploy the Net Array. It may prove to do a better job. It is likely that Hawaiian fisherman would gladly collect derelict fishing gear if given $1 euro/kilo, which is a fraction of OCP's $4.5 euro/kilo anticipated cost/benefit of the net. It's worth a try. Also, consider supporting a net lease program with a commercial fishing fleet. Because derelict fishing gear is the most abundant and most damaging to marine life and ocean navigation, this upstream solution is long-term and only beginning to be implemented.
4. Support design change and EPR. Consider supporting other upstream solutions, like EPR and product design, in order to reduce the trash load heading downriver. One of our Dutch heroes are the Plastic Soup Foundation, which were the first to campaign for the removal of plastic microbeads from consumer products.
We want to encourage innovation from people like Boyan Slat, but with the guidance of good, open-minded, pragmatic science. What we know about the problem has changed drastically since OCP first proposed the Net Array. We believe that the public will support a shift in priorities if presented well and reflects wide scientific agreement and collaboration. Willingness to change course with new information is admirable, and I think OCP's funders will appreciate that.
In the meantime, we welcome a dialogue, even another public webinar like the one we had last year to address these concerns.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Mark Hertsgaard
What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.
Will the White House Turn Green?<p>Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, "Get your mops and buckets ready."</p><p>Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an "F," called Trump a "climate arsonist" during California's recent wildfires. Biden backs a $2 trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.</p><p>The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/" target="_blank">Public concern is rising</a> in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?</p>
Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?<p>With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn't. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.</p><p>Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.</p><ul><li>Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science</li><li>Martha McSally of Arizona</li><li>Thom Tillis of North Carolina</li><li>Susan Collins of Maine</li><li>Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)</li><li>John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)</li></ul><p>Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.</p>
Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?<h4>THE CLIMATE HAWKS</h4><p>Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.</p><h4>THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS</h4><p>Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.</p><p>A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners' electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.</p><p>In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what <em>HuffPost</em> called "the most important environmental race in the country," Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America's leading petro-state can build.</p>
Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?<h4>THE UNCOUNTED</h4><p>The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters</a>, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don't vote. Stinnett's <a href="https://www.environmentalvoter.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Voter Project</a> works to awaken this sleeping giant.</p><h4>THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT</h4><p>Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the <a href="http://www.sunrisemovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sunrise Movement</a> are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?</p><h4>THE STARPOWER</h4><p>And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, <a href="https://votelikeamadre.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Vote Like A Madre</a> aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a "pinky promise" to vote for their kids' climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, "Will the White House Turn Green?"</p>
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By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
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