The Widening Gyre - Boylan Slat's controversial plan to clean up the oceans

New Yorker article by Carolyn Korman. Lots of information and views about cleaning up the plastic in the oceans. Link at end.  Some excerpts:

In 1941, two British chemists, V. E. Yarsley and E. G. Couzens, published an article in Science Digest that imagined “a dweller in the ‘Plastic Age.’ ” This Plastic Man, they wrote, “will come into a world of color and bright shining surfaces, where childish hands find nothing to break, no sharp edges or corners to cut or graze, no crevices to harbor dirt or germs.” As the chemists had predicted with surprising accuracy, “tough, safe, clean” plastic was soon everywhere. By the mid-nineteen-sixties, fifteen million tons of plastic were being produced every year. By 2015, the annual total was nearly thirty times greater.

Of all the plastic waste ever created, only about nine per cent has been recycled. Seventy-nine per cent rests, forgotten, in landfills, dumps, forests, rivers, and the ocean. In recent years, less than fifteen per cent of the plastic packaging produced annually has been recycled—the sort of figure that has led Jane Muncke, the director of Zurich’s Food Packaging Forum, to describe recycling as “the fig leaf of consumerism.”  ...

In 2015, the environmental engineer Jenna Jambeck co-authored a study, published in Science, in which she calculated that an average of eight million metric tons of land-based plastic entered the oceans each year: the equivalent, she wrote, when she testified about the problem before Congress, in 2016, of “five grocery-size bags filled with plastic going into the ocean along every foot of coastline in the world.” By 2025, she has said, those five bags will be ten. ...

Another report, published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, predicted that by 2050 there could be more plastic than fish, by weight, in the oceans.  ...

In 2001, [Charles] Moore published the results of his studies: there was six times more plastic in the gyre, by mass, than there was zooplankton, the base of the food chain. ...

The image of the patch proved resonant, if misleading. Soon people were saying that you could walk on it and even spot it from outer space.

In fact, most of what Charles Moore found was not large pieces of debris but microplastic—the tiny fragments that remain when the sun breaks down the larger hunks, and which the scientist and former U.S. marine Marcus Eriksen has called “the smog of the sea.” ...

In 2014, Eriksen, Moore, and seven other co-authors published their findings in the online journal PLOS One: more than 5.2 trillion particles of plastic were swirling in the planet’s oceans, and, in time, much of it would be ingested by ocean dwellers and by creatures that eat fish, including people.

Since then, numerous studies have shown that microplastic is everywhere—in the melting ice of the Arctic, in table salt, in beer, in shrimp scampi. A study last year found traces of it in eighty-three per cent of tap-water samples around the world. (The incidence was highest in the United States, at ninety-four per cent.) A major concern of scientists is that chemical toxins in the microplastics may leach off during digestion, gradually building up in animal and human tissues. Judith Enck, a senior official at the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama, told me, “Where we are on plastics is where we were fifteen years ago on climate change. We’re just beginning to get the picture.”

The looming public-health crisis has bolstered environmentalists’ arguments that the priority of governments, N.G.O.s, and the public ought to be preventing plastic from entering the ocean in the first place. According to some analyses, a forty-five-per-cent reduction in the leakage of plastic from land to sea is possible by improving waste management in China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. In the Philippines, Froilan Grate, an anti-plastic activist and organizer who has worked with Eriksen and Cummins, has helped establish zero-waste management systems in cities including San Fernando, which has set up citywide composting and recycling, created wage-paying jobs for garbage collectors, and banned plastic bags. Grate, who is working with sixteen cities across Indonesia, Malaysia, and India, estimates that San Fernando’s new system has prevented fifty-one thousand tons of plastic from entering the environment. But funding for such projects is scarce. When I asked Grate about Slat’s plan to remove the plastic from the ocean, he said, referring to the money that Slat had raised, “If I had forty million dollars, I could set up zero-waste programs all over Asia.”

In 2017, the Ocean Conservancy joined with industry heavyweights to announce that they were fund-raising for investments in recycling companies in Southeast Asia. The initiative grew into an investment-management firm, Circulate Capital, to which companies such as PepsiCo, Dow, Unilever, and Coca-Cola have pledged more than a hundred million dollars. Some efforts to ban the production of single-use plastics are succeeding—and not just in countries like Kenya, which addressed its litter crisis in 2017 by decreeing that anyone caught producing, selling, or even carrying a plastic bag could go to prison for four years or face a fine of up to forty thousand dollars. In October, the European Union advanced a directive to roll out bans on single-use plastics like plates and cutlery. In the United States, thanks to a campaign led by Eriksen and Cummins, microbeads—the exfoliating plastic sprinkles common in toiletries—became illegal in 2018. New York City has banned most polystyrene food containers. Straws, thanks in part to the turtle video, have become a favored cause: California has restricted their use, and Starbucks plans to phase them out altogether by 2020. Lego is introducing a new plant-based form of plastic.

According to Eriksen and other environmentalists, the Ocean Cleanup is a “distraction from the real solutions that the entire global movement is now working on.” And yet it is undeniable that the plastic already in the ocean will not simply disappear without a trace. In this dire moment, people are desperate for heroes. Slat agrees that prevention efforts are urgently necessary. “For us to be successful, that part needs to be taken care of as well,” he told me. But, he added, “all that large stuff will become the small, dangerous microplastic, and then we’ll be in a much worse position.” Given what Slat sees as the inevitable torpor of political change, he believes it is his job to remove plastic from the gyres before it degrades into tiny particles, making the smog worse. “The sooner we get it out, the better,” he said.


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