CLIMATE ADAPTATION

I want to punch climate change in the face. A blog about the interactions between the built environment, people, and nature.


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This “invention” keeps popping up in my daily enviro-reading. It’s being hyped by lefty-enviro media as the savior of our ocean garbage troubles called the Great Ocean Garbage Patch (actually, there are 6 patches). Garbage patches are huge, semi-floating patches of garbage and plastic in our oceans. They’re accumulations of garbage dumped directly into the oceans from cities, rivers, ships, and beaches. The trash gets caught in currents, and collects in large “patches” of ugliness. They kill hundreds of thousands of birds, fish, marine mammals every year. 

As a solution to this problem, a young man invented the above conveyor belt/floating boom robot machine to help collect and appropriately dispose of this terrible situation.

From engineeringisawesome:

19-Year-Old Student Develops Ocean Cleanup Array That Could Remove 7,250,000 Tons Of Plastic From the World’s Oceans

19-year-old Boyan Slat has unveiled plans to create an Ocean Cleanup Array that could remove 7,250,000 tons of plastic waste from the world’s oceans. The device consists of an anchored network of floating booms and processing platforms that could be dispatched to garbage patches around the world.

Instead of moving through the ocean, the array would span the radius of a garbage patch, acting as a giant funnel. The angle of the booms would force plastic in the direction of the platforms, where it would be separated from plankton, filtered and stored for recycling.

To be clear - it hasn’t been built, it doesn’t exist. And I’m sorry to say, this exciting device cannot - in it’s current concept - appropriately address the problem. I get what this young man is proposing, but it is false hope. The problem is so huge and way far beyond a gadget(s) like this to handle.

Here are some reasons why it won’t work (for now):

Laws protecting the oceans and its animals. The first thing that came to mind when I saw this was: “Jeez, this thing will slaughter thousands of marine species and violate countless animal and habitat laws.” For example, if an endangered or listed turtle, fish, mammal, or bird species got caught in the contraption, the owners would be in serious legal trouble.

They’d pay more fines than I can conceive. And since there are 6(!) garbage patches around the world (not just the one in the Pacific we hear so much about), the owners would have to navigate domestic and international laws from a variety of countries. From the U.S., see, Protecting Marine Mammals and Endangered Marine Species from the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy for a list of domestic laws that would obliterate this young man’s invention if it caught any protected animals.

Further, and with bitter irony, if the thing tipped they would be fined for polluting the ocean! I know - ironic. But laws prevent vessels from dumping into the oceans regardless of the source or intent of the vessel - no free passes kiddies!

Plastic doesn’t really float. The plastic in the 6(!) Great Ocean Garbage Patches are well below the surface - not floating on it. The trouble is that plastic in question are tiny sized bits about the size of a fingernail. The patches are not great swathes of floating bottles and discarded tech packaging, but teeny tiny pieces of plastic suspended many feet below the surface. Floating trash picker like this would be utterly ineffective. See:

It’s too small. Again, with 5 patches in the sub-tropical oceans and one in the Arctic, the size of this invention is the equivalent of floating a toothpick on the sea. It is just too tiny to address a problem tens of thousands of miles wide. You’d have to deploy thousands of these at a cost of billions.

Lack of political guts. With little (perhaps zero) political or international support to clean up the ocean’s trash, I’m sorry to say there’s near zero hope for such a project to come to life. This is especially true if it doesn’t have a clear return on investment. It’s true that there are a myriad of ecosystems services, fisheries, shipping, tourism, and ocean economic arguments. These are noble, well reasoned, fact based arguments. But we must look squarely to reality and recognize the paltry support from the general public to clean up this trash. Worse, there are no politicians, country platforms, nor private-sector actors effectively arguing to eliminate existing plastic from the oceans. It is a sad reality, but we must be clear about such things. (See also a government supported, interesting project called The Great Drifter Program, which tracks plastic around the world’s oceans by satellite).

Ocean storms and waves. Floating booms are not known for their durability. And waves regularly top 30 even 60 feet in the open oceans (see, Marine Hazards). The sturdiest, strongest ships in the world cannot survive in open waters for long, never mind flimsy floating booms. This machine, noble as it is, will simply shred into more tiny pieces of plastic in no time. Any number of hazards could sink, shred, pull down, ensnare, or otherwise doom the project to a depthly doom of doom.

Shipping routes. See this map for a reference starting point. It is unclear how this contraption would not get in the way of the tens of thousands of ships that travel right through the patches.

Moral hazard. Counter intuitively, such an invention could create more plastic pollution, not less. Moral hazard is that feeling you get when you litter either on accident or on purpose in cities: <shrug> “Meh, someone else will clean it up.”

Moral hazard is tricky. It’s the tendency to be more willing to take a risk, knowing that the potential costs or burdens of taking such risk will be borne, in whole or in part, by others (see here). In other words, if this machine is effective in cleaning plastic from the oceans, what is the incentive to stop polluting?

Moral hazard is tricky II. It is well known that when people go “green” they actually use more energy and consume more products. People drive faster when behind the wheel of a bigger vehicle, use more energy when they change their light bulbs to energy efficient ones, drive more when they purchase electric vehicles, etc etc.

The same holds for manufacturers and polluters. If someone else is cleaning up the plastic in the ocean, and there are little to no fines for dumping, then it becomes cost effective to just dump more plastic into the oceans.

To be clear, dear readers, I support this young man’s invention. The above criticisms serve to highlight reality and temper the hype…

UPDATE: The amazing Dr. Martini of Deep Sea News posted this list of issues to this project from a Marine Scientist’s perspective. Well worth clicking through.

(via engineeringisawesome)

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