We are devoting great efforts to clean the “islands of plastic” from the oceans. Maybe it’s not such a good idea

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Before saying goodbye at the stroke of a bell, 2018 left us with a great little surprise. The Urgent Spanish Foundation chose “microplastic” as word of the year. Beyond the curiosity that may result or the philological debate, the decision is a clear indicator that the proliferation of plastic waste worries us more and more. That’s right. Their production doubled between 2000 and 2019, a trend that goes hand in hand with the generation of waste, and much of it ends up in the oceans. According to Greenpeace there between five and 50 trillion fragments scattered throughout the seas, not including beaches and the seabed. By 2050 they may gain weight on the fish themselves.

Perhaps the best example of the problem—certainly the most graphic—is the plastic islands spread across the oceans. Especially the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a huge glob of debris located in the North Pacific. For years we have seen it as a kind of “snitch”, an XXL-sized reminder of the punishment to which we subject the environment and that had to be swept away. Its removal, however, may not be such a wonderful idea. Not simple.

At a minimum, we need to measure very well how to deal with it.

The danger of doing more harm than good. in 2019 The Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch foundation focused on cleaning up the oceans, faced a curious controversy. The agency manufactured a huge network designed precisely to collect the plastics that infect the waters of the Pacific. Their goal: to clean up to 1.6 million square kilometers in five years. When tested, the device proved that it works like a charm to remove debris… and what isn’t debris. Rebecca Helm, a college professor from North Carolina, raised his voice to warn that animals of the genus also ended up in the network Velella and Janthinawho live on the surface.

The Ocean Cleanup has been trying to improve its design for some time – it presented a prototype more than half a decade ago, in 2016 – and in July 2021 it returned to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to test your new version (002) during a 12-week campaign. With everything, has not been spared criticism at its cost and environmental footprint. Although he has worked to polish his mechanism, the institution recognizes that it’s not perfect: “We designed our system to catch plastic, not fish. However, we cannot completely prevent bycatch from occurring.”

Someone thought that using a giant net to collect plastics from the sea was a good idea, but no: they are sweeping life from the ocean

Contaminate while removing contamination. He seems nonsense, but one of the biggest handicaps facing projects like The Ocean Cleanup is the pollution they generate during their maneuvers. The system is not autonomous and requires the mobilization of vessels that have their own carbon footprint. According to calculations of the magazine vox, during a month of work, two ships that operate release 600 metric tons of carbon dioxide, more or less the equivalent of the pollution of 130 cars throughout a year. To alleviate it, the group looks for alternatives that do not need trailers and compensate for the impact.

The truth, as some experts ironically, is that the system resembles trawling and there are alternatives with a smaller environmental footprint, such as clean-up campaigns focused on the coast and beaches. Those who participate in them move on foot and their impact is much less.

Direct resources well… and attention. “It’s like cleaning up the spill when the faucet is still running.” The reflection, shared by Katie Matthews, a scientist at the collective oceanawith vox reflects well what it means to focus on cleaning the oceans. It is an important, commendable and valuable task; but it does not tackle the central problem, which is the generation of plastic waste itself. The pandemic alone has generated more than 146,000 tons of medical waste between kits and vaccines, much of it plastic. Data from the Aquae Foundation show that every year up to 12.7 million tons of plastic go on to fatten the enormous waste stain in the oceans.

The problem does not even focus on the so-called patches or “plastic islands”, which are not really such – they are more like soups, which makes it difficult to deal with them – and contain only one percent of the waste we throw into the oceans and seas. The Ocean Cleanup remembers that curbing pollution is not a zero-sum game; that is to say, it can be fought on several fronts at the same time without that taking away the weight or relevance of each one of them. That is true, but the data helps to broaden the focus and understand that patches like the one in the Pacific, despite the impressive images it leaves behind, represent only a fraction of a larger problem.

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An image cleansing instead of waters? The above idea gives rise to another question: Is there a risk that the media pull of campaigns such as the “Great Garbage Park” of the Pacific serves multinationals that contribute to pollution to ‘wash’ their image? One of the collaborators of The Ocean Cleanup is, for example, Coca-Cola, a company that participates, for example, in initiatives that seek stop river pollution. As the environmental organization explains, the initiative is good and represents a step by the company; but it does not take away from the fact that the soft drink brand is one of the great generators of single-use plastic containers.

According to data handled by the BBC The multinational sells some 100,000 million single-use disposable plastic bottles each year, which in 2021 earned it the title of the largest generator of plastic pollution by the organization Break Free From Plastic. In 2020 the company reaffirmed in its plans to continue packaging of this type to meet demand.

A garbage pandemic: we have generated more than 146,000 tons of medical waste just between kits and vaccines

Know the enemy well. To combat a problem it is essential to know it. And our knowledge of the so-called “plastic islands” is still limited. “We know virtually nothing about their ecology. These remote places are poorly studied and their cleanup is enormously expensive. We don’t even know what the impact of plastic is on this ecosystem (but we know it’s mixed, some species can tolerate it, some can be harmed). some may actually benefit.) From an ecological perspective we don’t really understand the problem,” says Rebecca Helm of the University of North Carolina to Gizmodo.

One of the keys is how large-scale plastic collection systems could affect the neuston, creatures that live on the surface, play an important role in the oceans and can go to the garbage and create ecosystems. There are already studies that indicate how drifting plastic is even becoming makeshift vessels for coastal species. some organizations, remember helmhave already begun to work on garbage patches using manual methods, which do not exactly disturb the ecosystems.

Images Naja Bertolt Jensen (Unsplash) and
ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Flickr)

Before saying goodbye at the stroke of a bell, 2018 left us with a great little surprise. The Urgent Spanish…

Before saying goodbye at the stroke of a bell, 2018 left us with a great little surprise. The Urgent Spanish…

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