The Pacific Trash Collector: noble or quixotic?

Launching the Ocean Cleanup system 

Earlier this month, a 2000-foot-long (600-meter-long) floating boom set out from California to head for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The instigator of this ambitious project, a Dutchman named Boyan Slat, hopes that the boom will demonstrate its ability to clean up the garbage floating in the top layer of the ocean. If it does, he wants to use more of the US$35 million he’s raised so far to build more booms and make a sizable dent in the garbage patch, which is reportedly twice the size of Texas.

Slat was inspired to clean up the ocean when he went scuba diving in the Mediterranean Sea when he was sixteen, and saw more plastic junk than fish. Now 24, he heads the non-profit organization called simply The Ocean Cleanup, which he has single-mindedly guided to create the boom that is now undergoing its initial tests. Wikipedia’s article on him notes that he first presented his garbage-collecting boom idea in a TEDx talk in 2012, and raised $2 million for it shortly thereafter with crowdfunding. Only six years later, he has realized his initial dream and is hoping that storms won’t reduce his garbage collector to pieces that will themselves become floating garbage, although this is a small but real possibility.

Slat is a product of his times, and while we must salute his drive and ingenuity, he depends vitally on the good will and priorities of the thousands of people, wealthy and otherwise, who have supported his enterprise.    

The Ocean Cleanup represents something fairly new in engineering organizations: an explicitly non-profit entity whose goal is to do something that indirectly benefits the entire world but directly benefits no one in particular. Smaller-scale organizations such as Engineers Without Borders also try to do good rather than simply support outfits that make money, but EWB tends to take on small-scale specific projects, not mega-ambitious things such as a fleet of booms to clean up the Pacific Ocean.

Nevertheless, Slat is doing engineering, and it remains to be seen whether the project will succeed on its own terms. The task Slat is undertaking is not easy.

The phrase “garbage dump” conjures up a picture of a solid layer of large pieces of floating plastic trash so thick you could almost walk on it, like you might see in a puddle at a trash dump. But the worst of the Great Pacific Garbage Dump is nothing near that dense. Some estimates say that at the highest concentration, there are only about 4 particles per cubic meter, and the size of most particles is on the order of a few millimetres, which makes the area difficult to assess through satellite imagery. You have to go out there with a sieve and drag the surface to find it—even visual observations from a boat will miss most of it.

There were no details in the AP article about the size of the screen that Slat’s boom uses, but obviously there are a lot of compromises involved. A screen small enough to catch 5-mm pieces of plastic will also bother fish, and so Slat is sending marine biologists along with the boom to monitor any harm that wildlife may come to as a result.

Another question is, how many of these booms will have to be deployed to make a dent in the problem? The Wikipedia article on the Great Pacific Garbage Dump cites an estimate of 80,000 metric tons of trash in the area. A spokesman for the Ocean Conservancy named George Leonard said that while he hoped Slat’s effort will succeed, some 9 million tons of plastic waste go into the oceans each year. No source was given for that statistic.

Even if we ignore the question of whether metric or English tons are in question, the ratio of 9 million to 80,000 is a factor of about 100. Assuming the 9-million-ton figure is true, even if Slat gets the Garbage Dump completely cleaned up, that will represent only about 1% of the stuff entering the ocean each year, which is (pardon the expression) a drop in the ocean. If the 9-million-ton figure is in error, somebody needs to be called to account to correct it.

Now, cleaning up the environment is a noble goal, and I hope Slat’s boom collects all the garbage that his heart desires. Of course, once the garbage is brought to land we’ll face the problem of what to do with it then, but at least it will be out of the ocean. But I can’t help but wonder how a 24-year-old, even a very determined one, can raise $30 million for a giant project that will not demonstrably directly improve the life of any single individual on earth, while obvious human needs such as the lack of pure water and sanitation in many locations around the globe results in the deaths of thousands every year.

The answer, I think, is the distortion of priorities that has occurred in the global culture, a distortion that can be traced to a vacuum where knowledge ought to be. Most traditional cultures presented people with an integrated vision of what the world is about, and what one’s place in the world was. Leaving aside any question of which vision is actually true, a person growing up in such a culture usually conformed to the culture’s vision, and if that vision was benign, things went well with that culture, generally speaking.

But in today’s atomistic, fragmented, individualistic culture dominated by global media that present a highly selective view of the world, projects such as Slat’s can attract attention and support from people who may not know or care that their next-door neighbour could use help a lot better than the fish in the Pacific Ocean. There is no united vision of the world and its purposes, so anybody who comes along with a good-sounding solution to one of the problems highlighted by the media can gain the kind of support that Slat has with his Ocean Cleanup project.

I wish Boyan Slat’s project the best, but I hope he learns from failure as well as success, and redirects his future efforts toward something that will help others a little more directly.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.  


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