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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The Biden-Harris transition team identified COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change as its top priorities. Rivers are the through-line linking all of them. The fact is, healthy rivers can no longer be separated into the "nice-to-have" column of environmental progress. Rivers and streams provide more than 60 percent of our drinking water — and a clear path toward public health, a strong economy, a more just society and greater resilience to the impacts of the climate crisis.
Public Health<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyNDY3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDkxMTkwNn0.pyP14Bg1WvcUvF_xUGgYVu8PS7Lu49Huzc3PXGvATi4/img.jpg?width=980" id="8e577" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1efb3445f5c445e47d5937a72343c012" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="3000" data-height="2302" />
Wild and Scenic Merced River, California. Bob Wick / BLM<p>Let's begin with COVID-19. More than <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">16 million Americans</a> have contracted the coronavirus and, tragically,<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank"> more than</a> <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">300,000 have died</a> due to the pandemic. While health officials encourage hand-washing to contain the pandemic, at least <a href="https://closethewatergap.org/" target="_blank">2 million Americans</a> are currently living without running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater treatment. Meanwhile, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank">aging water infrastructure is growing increasingly costly for utilities to maintain</a>. That cost is passed along to consumers. The upshot? <a href="https://research.msu.edu/affordable-water-in-us-reaching-a-crisis/" target="_blank">More than 13 million</a> U.S. households regularly face unaffordable water bills — and, thus, the threat of water shutoffs. Without basic access to clean water, families and entire communities are at a higher risk of <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2020/08/05/488705/bridging-water-access-gap-covid-19-relief/" target="_blank">contracting</a> and spreading COVID-19.</p><p>We have a moral duty to ensure that everyone has access to clean water to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Last spring, <a href="https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/coronavirus-stimulus-bill-explained-bailouts-unemployment-benefits.html" target="_blank">Congress appropriated more than $4 trillion</a> to jumpstart the economy and bring millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Additional federal assistance — desperately needed — will present a historic opportunity to improve our crumbling infrastructure, which has been <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">grossly underfunded for decades</a>.</p><p>A report by my organization, American Rivers, suggests that <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Congress must invest at least $50 billion</a> "to address the urgent water infrastructure needs associated with COVID-19," including the rising cost of water. This initial boost would allow for the replacement and maintenance of sewers, stormwater infrastructure and water supply facilities.</p>
Economic Recovery<p>Investing in water infrastructure and healthy rivers also creates jobs. Consider, for example, that <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y9p6sgnk" target="_blank">every $1 million spent on water infrastructure in the United States generates more than 15 jobs</a> throughout the economy, according to a report by the Value of Water Campaign. Similarly, <a href="https://tinyurl.com/yyvd2ksp" target="_blank">every "$1 million invested in forest and watershed restoration contracting will generate between 15.7 and 23.8 jobs,</a> depending on the work type," states a working paper released by the Ecosystem Workforce Program, University of Oregon. Healthy rivers also spur tourism and recreation, which many communities rely on for their livelihoods. According to the findings by the Outdoor Industry Association, which have been shared in our report, "Americans participating in watersports and fishing spend over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">$174 billion</a> on gear and trip related expenses. And, the outdoor watersports and fishing economy supports over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">1.5 million jobs nationwide</a>."</p><p>After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress invested in infrastructure to put Americans back to work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act <a href="https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-a-budget/25941-clean-water-green-infrastructure-get-major-boost" target="_blank">of 2009 (ARRA) allocated $6 billion</a> for clean water and drinking water infrastructure to decrease unemployment and boost the economy. More specifically, <a href="https://www.conservationnw.org/news-updates/us-reps-push-for-millions-of-restoration-and-resilience-jobs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an analysis of ARRA</a> "showed conservation investments generated 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars," and more than doubled the rate of return, according to a letter written in May 2020 by 79 members of Congress, seeking greater funding for restoration and resilience jobs.</p><p>Today, when considering how to create work for the <a href="https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10.7 million</a> people who are currently unemployed, Congress should review previous stimulus investments and build on their successes by embracing major investments in water infrastructure and watershed restoration.</p>
Racial Justice<p>American Rivers also recommends that Congress dedicate <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$500 billion for rivers and clean water over the next 10 years</a> — not just for the benefit of our environment and economy, but also to begin to address the United States' history of deeply entrenched racial injustice.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.epa.gov/npdes/sanitary-sewer-overflows-ssos" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">23,000-75,000 sewer overflows</a> that occur each year release up to <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/2020/05/fighting-for-rivers-means-fighting-for-justice/#:~:text=There%20are%20also%2023%2C000%20to%2075%2C000%20sanitary%20sewer,to%20do%20with%20the%20mission%20of%20American%20Rivers." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10 billion gallons of toxic sewage</a> <em>every day</em> into rivers and streams. This disproportionately impacts communities of color, because, for generations, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color have been <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flooding-disproportionately-harms-black-neighborhoods/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relegated</a> to live in flood-prone areas and in neighborhoods that have been intentionally burdened with a lack of development that degrades people's health and quality of life. In some communities of color, incessant flooding due to stormwater surges or <a href="https://www.ajc.com/opinion/opinion-partnering-to-better-manage-our-water/7WQ6SEAQP5E4LGQCEYY5DO334Y/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">combined sewer overflows</a> has gone unmitigated for decades.</p><p>We have historically treated people as separate from rivers and water. We can't do that anymore. Every voice — particularly those of people most directly impacted — must have a loudspeaker and be included in decision-making at the highest levels.</p><p>Accordingly, the new administration must diligently invest in projects at the community level that will improve lives in our country's most marginalized communities. We also must go further to ensure that local leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration should restore <a href="https://www.epa.gov/cwa-401#:~:text=Section%20401%20Certification%20The%20Clean%20Water%20Act%20%28CWA%29,the%20United%20States.%20Learn%20more%20about%20401%20certification." target="_blank">Section 401 of the Clean Water Act</a>, which was undermined by the <a href="https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2020/tribes-and-environmental-groups-sue-trump-administration-to-preserve-clean-water-protections#:~:text=Under%20Section%20401%20of%20the%20Clean%20Water%20Act%2C,seeks%20to%20undermine%20that%20authority%20in%20several%20ways%3A" target="_blank">Trump administration's 2020 regulatory changes</a>. This provision gives states and tribes the authority to decide whether major development projects, such as hydropower and oil and gas projects, move forward.</p>
Climate Resilience<p>Of course, the menacing shadow looming over it all? Climate change. <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">More than 100 climate-related catastrophes</a> have pummeled the Earth since the pandemic was declared last spring, including the blitzkrieg of megafires, superstorms and heat waves witnessed during the summer of 2020, directly impacting the lives of more than <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">50 million people globally</a>.</p><p>Water and climate scientist Brad Udall often says, "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQhpj5G0dME" target="_blank">Climate change is water change</a>." In other words, the most obvious and dire impacts of climate change are evidenced in profound changes to our rivers and water resources. You've likely seen it where you live: Floods are more damaging and frequent. Droughts are deeper and longer. Uncertainty is destabilizing industry and lives.</p><p>By galvanizing action for healthy rivers and managing our water resources more effectively, we can insure future generations against the consequences of climate change. First, we must safeguard rivers that are still healthy and free-flowing. Second, we must protect land and property against the ravages of flooding. And finally, we must promote policies and practical solutions that take the science of climate disruption into account when planning for increased flooding, water shortage and habitat disruption.</p><p>Imagine all that rivers do for us. Most of our towns and cities have a river running through them or flowing nearby. Rivers provide clean drinking water, irrigate crops that provide our food, power our homes and businesses, provide wildlife habitat, and are the lifeblood of the places where we enjoy and explore nature, and where we play and nourish our spirits. Healthy watersheds help <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059952" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mitigate</a> climate change, absorbing and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Healthy rivers and floodplains help communities adapt and build resilience in the face of climate change by improving flood protection and providing water supply and quality benefits. Rivers are the cornerstones of healthy, strong communities.</p><p>The more than <a href="https://archive.epa.gov/water/archive/web/html/index-17.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">3 million miles</a> of rivers and streams running across our country are a source of great strength and opportunity. When we invest in healthy rivers and clean water, we can improve our lives. When we invest in rivers, we create jobs and strengthen our economy. When we invest in rivers, we invest in our shared future.</p>
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