A blog set out to explore, archive & relate plastic pollution happening world-wide, while learning about on-going efforts and solutions to help break free of our addiction to single-use plastics & sharing this awareness with a community of clean water lovers everywhere!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Cleaning Up the Oceans' 'Plastic Soup'

Published in the Huffington Post
Ever since I was young, I've loved the ocean. I grew up in Southern California near the Pacific Ocean. Any excuse to jump in the water was good enough for me. In the course of my life, I've noticed increasing amounts of plastic pollution in the sea. Initially, I would gather what I was able to collect, tie it to my bikini, bring it out and find a garbage can on land. The problem is that I started seeing more and more.

In 2007, I heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and my first response was, "Oh my gosh! We have got to go out there and clean this thing up!," which I described in a TED Talk on Mission Blue in 2010.

We now know that the entire ocean has become a "plastic soup" and filled with particles so tiny that some describe it as "plastic smog."

With more than 5 trillion plastic pieces weighing more than 250,000 tons afloat at sea, we have a disaster on our hands.

Plastic pollution is an urgent problem, and unless we intend to live in a garbage dump, constantly exposing ourselves to the chemicals (which leach from plastics) and to eat seafood (which has also ingested these plastics), the time has arrived to address this issue.

The Plastic Pollution Coalition was founded in late 2009 and since then, we've grown to include more than 400 organizations and businesses around the world, working to stop plastic pollution, to educate and to raise awareness of the toxic impact of plastic and the chemicals that leach from plastic on humans, animals, the ocean and the environment. Our first, and what continues to be our most successful campaign, is the REFUSE campaign. We've adapted the three "R" model of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle -- and added a fourth "R" onto the front, which is to Refuse; whenever possible, refuse single-use plastic.

While cleaning up this mess in the ocean is important and, in fact plastic and micro-plastics have now been discovered in every ocean in the world, including in the Arctic ice, the truth is that we must become part of the solution by putting energy toward source reduction.

So, let's talk about solutions and alternatives and look at what's working right now. This a tremendous time for innovation -- to take a look at what was used in the past and what we are developing. It's important to identify alternative products, which exist right now and can be utilized in place of disposable single-use plastic.

Plastic is a valuable material, which we are using in an irresponsible way when it's designed with intended obsolescence in mind. In other words, designed to be used for a short amount of time.

Plastic Free Schools: The goal of Plastic Free Schools is to invite and encourage schools to conduct a single-use and disposable plastic audit and then proceed to measurably reduce plastic pollution on their campuses around the world, with a special focus on the reduction and ultimately the elimination of plastic bottles, straws, utensils, bags, and food packaging. This means different things for different schools, from hosting a plastic free sporting event, to ending bottled water sales across the campus.

Plastic Free Towns: Part of the PPC network of communities around the globe, we share best practices across the range of coalition members and provide tools to support their efforts to eliminate disposable plastic and measurably reduce their overall plastic footprint.

Plastic Free Events: We encourage touring performers to reduce their plastic footprint on the road, and suggest best practices and ways to do so. We continue to expand the Refill Revolution this year at Bonnaroo 2015, originally launched in 2014 at Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tennessee, an outdoor music and camping festival that hosts more than 80,000 people each June.

Plastic Free Island: Started on the island of Kefalonia, Greece in the Ionian Sea, the primary objective of this multi-year pilot program is to shrink the island of Kefalonia's own disposable plastic footprint by offering strategies for measurably reduction. By the end of the PPC's 10-year commitment to this project, Kefalonia will be able to share a "road-tested" template for integrating active-learning programming, engaged community research, and public-art activist projects, all directed at raising awareness of the ecological crisis, and creating the public will to combat it.

So For this World Oceans Day, let us say this: The ocean is in peril due to many factors, but the growing amount of plastic pollution and micro-plastics currently being released into the sea and waterways must stop. We can be a part of the solution by making smarter daily choices and always thinking reusable rather than disposable. The simplest actions can make a world of difference: bring your own bag to the market, take a reusable stainless steel or glass bottle with you when you're on the go, choose real utensils over plastic ones, and say no to plastic pollution.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action. The series is being produced to coincide with World Oceans Day (June 8), as part of HuffPost's "What's Working" initiative, putting a spotlight on initiatives around the world that are solutions oriented. To read all the posts in the series, read here.

Sea Dragon - exploring the oceans, exploring ourselves

Three scientific expeditions into the Atlantic ocean will take place this summer, writes outdoor philosopher Kate Rawles. But as well as gathering data about plastic pollution and over-fishing, they will give participants the chance to think deeply about our society, its values, the often false narratives it tells; and our place, as humans, in the natural world.

Published by Dr. Kate Rawles, June 16, 2015 in the Ecologist.org
Imagine grappling with questions about the value of nature while sea kayaking off the west coast of Scotland surrounded by seals, say or, sailing into the North Atlantic gyre to investigate ocean plastic pollution.

Phosphorescent dolphins are amongst the most beautiful things I've ever seen. Arched and glittering through curling bow waves, their blowholes breathed sparklers into the night air.

It was the 4am shift on Pangaea Exploration's yacht Sea Dragon, sailing the North Atlantic Gyre last summer to investigate ocean plastic pollution. The sparkling dolphins remain a highlight. Utterly beautiful; and achingly sad. Because by then we knew just a bit too much about how we are impacting their habitat.

A recent paper in Science puts the amount of plastic created annually at around 275 million tonnes. About 8 million tonnes per year end up in the oceans. The havoc caused to wildlife by plastic pollution is familiar from those heart breaking images of turtles choking on plastic bags, and the horrific, plastic-filled stomach contents of albatross chicks.

Almost all the plastic ever created, bar a small percentage that has been incinerated, still exists. Over time - and plastic is a substance that's been around since the 1950's - it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. And that's where the scientific dimension of our trip last year was focussed.

And microplastics
As described in a previous piece for The Ecologist, microplastics are defined as bits of plastic smaller than 5mm. They arrive in the ocean as microbeads, as microfibers released when we wash fleeces, as nurdles (the raw material for large pieces of plastic), or as large pieces of plastic disintegrating into fragments.

We were trying to establish 'real world' (as opposed to lab-based) evidence that these microplastics can be ingested by plankton. Given the role of plankton in the ocean food web, and in the oxygen and carbon cycles, the importance of this research is hard to overstate.

The oxygen in every second breath you take has been processed by plankton and the ocean absorbs about a third of anthropogenic CO2, with plankton playing a key role. But scientific research was just one dimension of the voyage.

The ocean is BIG. But so are our impacts on it
We all know that 70% of earth's surface is ocean. Perhaps less well known is that about 98% of the space available for life on earth is in the ocean, with land and the thin sliver of breathable atmosphere very much in the minority.

Knowledge is one thing. But when you've been sailing for days without seeing land, or even another vessel, what this means in terms of sheer hugeness really hits home, and becomes meaningful and real in a very different way.

And each day, despite the vastness of the seas and after only a brief twenty minute trawl, multi-coloured microplastics were clearly visible in every sample. Plastic has pervaded the ocean.

Plastic pollution, though, for all its importance and difficulty, is only one issue. Throw in ocean acidification, noise and light pollution, dead zones and of course overfishing and it's clear that, for all its immense size, the anthropogenic impacts on the ocean are extraordinary.

A question that has exercised me for a long time is 'what lies beneath all this?' Are there shared drivers of these multiple ocean impacts? And, if so, what might they be?

The architecture and stories of industrialised life
Answering this involves burrowing down into the shared architecture of our social, political and economic systems; unearthing their underpinning logic and values and bringing them into the light of day for critical scrutiny.

And it involves trying to notice the stories our societies and cultures tell us so constantly they are rendered invisible: stories about humans, nature and the relationship between the two; stories that tell us there is such a thing as humans on the one hand and nature on the other; and stories about what makes us humans happy and what counts as 'progress'.

That this architecture and these stories are deeply problematic is not a new analysis. Many have expounded it in articles, books and lecture halls, including myself.

Over the years, the irony of discussing the impacts of humans on nature, and why nature matters, in highly unnatural settings - artificial light, artificial heat, sometimes without even a window and often with the only other species in the room being our own gut flora and fauna - has become impossible to ignore.

And that's turned into a journey towards discovering the impact and efficacy of taking a very different approach.

Outdoor philosophy
Imagine grappling with questions about the value of nature while sea kayaking off the west coast of Scotland surrounded by seals, say or, sailing into the North Atlantic gyre to investigate ocean plastic pollution.

These experiences involve simultaneously journeying to the heart of an issue, ground-truthing (or sea-truthing) it by actually being there. And stepping away from the high-paced, high consumption, high impact industrialised modern societies in which most of us live out of lives.

Both journeying to and stepping away open up the rare and precious possibility of seeing our unsustainable 'normal' lives from a different perspective. Both offer the possibility of noticing those invisible stories we're normally immersed in, like a fish in water, and opening them up for critical debate.

The chance to feel as well as think that those narratives of nature as merely a set of resources for our own species, or of consumerism as the fast-track to happiness, might be deeply, deeply flawed.

There are other huge positives too. Inevitably, there is a great mix of people and professions on board, so that all our debates are informed by multiple, interdisciplinary perspectives. Debates that are emotionally engaged through relevant experience support a sustained commitment to finding, and living, new solutions.

And then there are the multiple ripple effects that ensue when a boat-load of fired up people, bonded through shared and sometimes out-of-your-comfort-zone experience, disembark and track back to their lives, supported by new networks and taking dolphin-inspired determination with them.

The adventure of sustainability
A final powerful dimension arises through taking the insights, realisations and solutions that emerge from these journeys back out into the world cloaked in the story of an adventurous voyage. It transforms their chance of traction and engages new audiences in new ways.

And adventure is a great metaphor for the change we need. The transition to sustainability, to single as opposed to multiple planet living, is an immense challenge; an adventure we are all on, whether we choose it or not.

Being up for it, and calling on all those qualities of teamwork, collaboration, humour, compassion, creativity and resolve we need on board has to be up there with our best chances of success.

Sea Dragon expeditions

July 30-Aug 8 - Gyre to Gaia II: Ocean Plastic Pollution Azores - Lanzarote (includes supporting further scientic work on plastic and plankton, plus exploration of the context, deep roots and potential solutions for ocean plastic pollution).

Aug 22-Aug 31 - Be The Change: The Adventure of Sustainability Lanzarote - Cape Verde Islands (environmental sustainability, leadership and change).

Sept 6-Sept 19 - Fish for the Future! Overfishing, context and solutions Cape Verde Islands - Ivory Coast.

Three bursary places are available to join Kate Rawles and the crew of Sea Dragon this summer. More information at panexplore.com.

Also on The Ecologist: 'Microplastic ocean pollution - will you join our research voyage?' by Kate Rawles.

Dr Kate Rawles is a freelance Outdoor Philosopher, writer, lecturer and activist. She runs regular 'reconnection with nature' sea kayaking courses for environmentalists who spend too much time with their computers, and is the academic director of Reconnections@Findhorn (with Jonathon Porritt and Forum for the Future). Kate worked as 'Mission Leader' on Sea Dragon for two legs last summer, and will be working with her again later this year.

Her book The Carbon Cycle; Crossing the Great Divide (Two Ravens Press 2012; Rocky Mountain Books 2013), based on her 4,553 mile bike ride from Texas to Alaska exploring N. American attitudes to climate change, was shortlisted for the Banff Mountain Festival Adventure Travel Award and a runner-up in the People's Book Prize.

Her next big bike trip will be in the Andes, with a focus on biodiversity. She has recently left the University of Cumbria where she lectured on environmental issues, environmental ethics and sustainability. Kate is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and sits on the Food Ethics Council.

More info at outdoorphilosophy.com.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Plankton in Distress

A sculpture zooms in on the ocean’s plastic plight.

As an artist-in-residence on a Tara Oceans expedition to study plankton, Mara Haseltine saw firsthand how plastic was just as ubiquitous as those billions upon billions of tiny floating organisms that make up the bottom of the marine food chain. No matter how pristine the water sampled, the microscope always revealed plastic particles. Emily V. Driscoll’s short documentary, Invisible Ocean: Plankton & Plastic, follows the artist as she creates a sculpture that depicts the ailing health of these unseen species that help drive all life on earth.

Haseltine titled her sculpture La Bohème: A Portrait of Today’s Oceans in Peril, after Puccini’s opera, in which the poet Rodolfo falls in love with Mimi, who is dying of tuberculosis. In the artist’s rendition, tintinnid plankton plays the damsel in distress. “I want people to fall in love with Mimi—I want them to love the plankton and hate the plastic,” Haseltine says. “I’m looking for an emotional reaction, which leads to action.” So, there you have itIf you don’t want to clean up your act for little green blobs, do it for Mimi!

7 important ocean trends, and what we can do about them

Image: Quincy Dien/Design Pics/Corbis

More than 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered in water. About 97% of it exists in our oceans.

But the oceans aren't just full of aquatic creatures and colorful coral that comprise the perfect snorkel scenery. Major problems lurk on top of, and especially beneath the surface — problems that need our attention. That's why we need World Oceans Day.

Led by The Ocean Project, World Oceans Day is celebrated June 8 with the goal of drawing attention to the factors that threaten the health of our seas and our planet overall.

Our oceans are a major player in the environmental health of our world — after all, they generate much of the oxygen we breathe while absorbing a vast chunk of the carbon dioxide emissions from our power plants and cars. It's about time we gave them the attention they deserve.

These seven threats to oceans need our attention and consideration on World Oceans Day — and every day.

1. We dump 19 billion pounds of plastics into the ocean every year.

Beach goers and sailers aren't just finding sea glass and swirling shells in the sand anymore. They're finding plastic, and lots of it. Plastic pollution is one of the main focus areas of World Oceans Day this year, but there are plenty of other types of pollution threatening our shining seas, such as pesticides, detergents and oils from marine shipping.

Gyres of marine debris, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, are composed of microscopic pieces of plastic, chemical sludge and other types of pollution. These debris collection areas can span for hundreds of thousands of miles in our oceans, and they're growing larger with time. It's estimated we dump 19 billion pounds of plastics into the ocean every year.

Some ways you can make a difference include cutting unnecessary plastic out of your routine, recycling the plastics you do use and cleaning up your local beaches. Plus, there's a major case for supporting pesticide-free farming, natural detergents and advocating for more responsible ocean travel and transport policies.

2. Sea levels are set to rise by at least 3.3 feet during this century alone.

What 5 feet, 12 feet and 25 feet of sea level change would look like for New York City.
Seas are rising at an increasing rate, even if you don’t notice a yearly change at your favorite beach. Oceans are rising about 3 millimeters per year — that may not seem like a big deal, but those tiny millimeters add up. By 2100, it’s expected that sea levels will have risen by an average of 39 inches compared to where they were at in the early 1990s. And that reality is going to cost us an estimated $1 trillion by the end of this century.

Already, storm surges in cities like New York and Washington, D.C. are affecting more homes and businesses than they used to because of the relatively small amount of sea level rise seen to date, and parts of Miami have been regularly flooding even on sunny days.

Rising sea levels are a direct result of our warming climate. Melting glaciers and ice caps are the biggest contributor now, but rising sea temperatures (more on that later) are causing an expansion in the volume of waters in our oceans, too.

So, what can you do about all this? Truthfully, we can't entirely curb this trend. Our oceans will keep rising in the near future, there's no changing that — but we can slow the rate that they do, and stabilize things before they get too high. Cutting our greenhouse gas emissions can help the situation, but we are already at a dire point.

Scientists have said that if emissions are not dramatically cut in the next one to two decades, it may be too late to stop some of the worst impacts of global warming, including the inundation of low-lying island states from sea level rise.

However, the scope of the challenge shouldn't discourage you from doing your part to enact even a slight change. Using water efficiently and reducing your carbon footprint are all things to consider.

3. Sea surface temperatures rose 0.18 degrees Fahrenheit over the last century.

That's actually a huge change. Increasing sea surface temperatures may seem appealing to any beach lover — who doesn't want a nice, warm ocean to swim in? — warmer seas mean more powerful tropical cyclones, including hurricanes and typhoons. Over the last century, sea temperatures have risen about 0.18 degrees Fahrenheit.

Even the slightest change in sea temperature can throw off the entire aquatic ecosystem, spurring a mad dash to cooler waters. Science shows this is already occurring in many areas. Once-excluded bacteria and other sea critters can suddenly thrive in environments they weren't meant to live in, which disrupts native aquatic life.
The fix? Those pesky greenhouse gases I mentioned earlier really need to go. If you aren't paying attention to your carbon footprint, start. For good measure, you can plant a tree to take in even a tiny bit of that CO2. For extra-good measure, be sure to factor in a political candidate's views on the climate when you go into the voting booth.

4. More than 60% of fish stocks are now considered overfished.

Entire populations of fish are being wiped out due to overfishing. When too many fish are removed too quickly from our oceans, ecosystems can have trouble recovering from the loss. The result is an less healthy underwater community left with only low-trophic level species that are less commercially valuable. While seafood is pleasing to your tastebuds, it's important to enjoy responsibly and support efforts to regulate overfishing.

More than 60% of global fish stocks are overfished, meaning that fishing is putting their species in danger. That's not only bad for the environment; it's bad for the job market.

About 40,000 jobs were lost when one species of cod was overfished in 1992. In 2003, that same species of cod was officially listed as an endangered species in Canada.

Some scientists claim that, at the rate we're going, we will effectively be out of fish by 2050. An easy way to support healthy ocean life is learning which fish and shellfish are most responsible to eat. For example, you should avoid favorites like Atlantic cod and bluefin tuna. Both of these are overfished, and bluefin tuna may be gone within the next few decades.

5. More than 90% of all marine predators have already been removed from their habitats.

When major declines in the shark population off the coast of North Carolina occurred in the early 2000s, it caused the collapse of a century-old scallop fishery. Predator sharks were removed from the local ecosystem, causing their prey, the cownose ray, to be left alone. These rays demolished the scallop population, their main food source, which was the backbone of the local economy. Disturbing the natural balance of this underwater environment caused a ripple effect that extended far beyond the sea.

More than 90% of top predators, including sharks, tuna and swordfish, have already been lost due to overfishing and habitat destruction. Without the ability to replace predators, their prey thrive — which isn't a good thing.

We need to reduce our impact on the ocean, but we also need to leave the ocean to be largely responsible for regulating itself. Take this as a friendly reminder to advocate for sustainable ocean policies, including responsible fishing and anti-pollution efforts to keep everything under the sea happy and healthy. Let's try to keep the food web intact. Buying fish from local fishing communities can often be more sustainable the buying fish at large supermarket chains, where much of the seafood is flown in.

6. In 2005, 50% of Caribbean coral reefs were damaged due to coral bleaching.

Because of pollution and extreme temperatures due to climate change, coral is becoming bleach-white in our oceans. While it may look cool to have pristine coral on the ocean floor, healthy coral is essential for overall sea well-being — and healthy coral looks colorful and is crawling with essential algae. Yet, when pollution and warming seas pass certain thresholds, coral suffers. And when coral suffers, so does the 25% of marine life that calls coral reefs home.

Bleached coral isn't dead, but it is extremely stressed. However, stressed coral can die more easily, which is exactly what happened in the Caribbean in 2005 when the U.S. lost 50% of coral reefs in one year alone. To help abate coral bleaching, be friendlier to the ocean by reducing your carbon footprint.

7. More than 30% of all our carbon dioxide emissions end up in the sea.

Ocean acidification refers to the gradual decrease of pH in the Earth’s oceans, which is caused by carbon dioxide being dissolved in the ocean. A big source of all that CO2 floating around? Humans. Every time you start your car, you're releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — and the U.S. alone is responsible for 16% of carbon dioxide emissions for the whole globe. More than 30% of all carbon dioxide produced globally ends up in our oceans, which is causing some major problems.

Carbon dioxide from the Earth's atmosphere reacts with seawater to form carbonic acid. Changes in the ocean’s seawater chemistry may have a devastating toll on aquatic life. This carbonic acid has been known to prevent healthy shell growth in some marine animals, and could possibly be causing some species of fish to have serious reproduction issues.

We need to reduce our carbon emissions, which isn't an easy task. Try to explore transportation options other than your car, like mass transit and bicycles. You should also pay more attention to your home energy usage, which can spike your carbon footprint, and choose to take more rail and bus trips than flights.

BONUS: Less than 10% of the ocean has actually been explored by humans.

Possibly the greatest threat to our oceans is how much we just don’t know about them. Less than 10% of the ocean has actually been explored by humans, making everything below the sea a relatively great mystery.

Take some time to advocate for ocean exploration, and support organizations doing work to save the oceans.
Have something to add to this story? Share it in the comments.

Monday, June 8, 2015

6 Reasons That Floating Ocean Plastic Cleanup Gizmo is a Horrible Idea

It's all over the internet these days: a floating boom to be set out in 2016 between Korea and Japan to collect improperly discarded plastics. The two-kilometer float, to be deployed off Tsushima Island in the Korea Strait, is a bit of a test run for much larger versions the creators hope to moor in open oceans around the world within the next five years.

The team behind the project, The Ocean Cleanup, claims that their floating booms will be able to rid the oceans of plastic pollution such as found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, at minimal cost and effort, without posing undue risk to wildlife, within a few years. But since young inventor Boyan Slat first began, at about age 18, to get attention for his idea, marine biologists and oceanographers have been fairly pulling their hair out at the Ocean Cleanup's huge social media popularity.

It makes sense that Slat's idea has become popular. Vague but persuasive sales pitches that promise to solve problems without us having to change our behavior? They're always popular. But here's what's got those scientists in a cranky mood: Slat's idea almost certainly won't make enough of a dent in the ocean plastic pollution to be worth the effort, it will almost certainly injure wildlife already struggling from an ocean with too much of our stuff in it, and the rigs may end up becoming more shredded pieces of plastic in an ocean already literally awash in plastic.

One of the most disheartening things about the response to those scientific second thoughts is a common public response along the lines of "at least Slat is doing something about the problem, unlike these scientists who can't do anything but tear down his good idea instead of helping." That's being said about people who have, in some cases, been sounding the alarm about plastic pollution since before Slat was born. Some groups critical of Slat's idea, such as the organization 5 Gyres (about whom more in a moment), have been working feverishly to come up with workable solutions to the ocean plastics problem. Many of the critics have lauded Slat's enthusiasm, merely suggesting that it be tempered by a bit of real-world thinking.

That's not to say that big ideas might not be perfectly appropriate tools with which to tackle the problem of plastics pollution in the ocean. It's a big problem. There are five distinct "garbage patches" in the world's oceans, where discarded plastic has accumulated as a result of finding relatively stable spots between oceans' currents. The largest known of these, dubbed the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," is usually compared in area to the state of Texas.

And that's a problem, because that plastic doesn't just sit there and float around. It gets eaten by marine life, and can cause them serious health problems -- including starvation from having a belly full of indigestible plastic. It leaches chemicals into the ocean water, and can disrupt the normal ecological functions of the open ocean, blocking sunlight that plankton depend on for photosynthesis, among other things.

In order to remedy this, Slat and his crew say they want to place as many as 24 floating booms about 1,000 kilometers long (621 miles) at strategic spots in the ocean. The booms would be designed to funnel pieces of floating plastic into collectors, from which it would be hauled elsewhere for recycling.

Slat says that his boom designs could rid the world's oceans of plastic garbage in five years, while posing minimal risk to the oceans' wildlife.

That's got a lot of people who may not have much experience with actual conditions on the open ocean pretty excited. Marine biologists, oceanographers, and engineers with experience with offshore infrastructure aren't jumping on the bandwagon quite as enthusiastically. It's great to chase bold visions, but the devil, as they say, is in the details.

Here are some of those details.

1. Ocean plastic doesn't behave the way the project's backers say it does.
Technical details of The Ocean Cleanup's design are sparse, but it looks as though the group plans to funnel plastic into collectors using long baffles that extend three meters below the ocean surface. Their contention is that the majority of plastic debris will be floating in the top three meters of ocean.

The Ocean Cleanup conducted a study of the water column in an area in the Atlantic that they say backs up this contention. That study found that the amount of plastic dropped off "exponentially" deeper than three meters below the surface.

But as oceanographers Kim Martini and Miriam Goldstein pointed out in their review of that study, The Ocean Cleanup's team did no sampling deeper than five meters below the surface. That despite the fact that winds have been proven to mix surface ocean waters as deep as 100 meters, with plastic documented at least that deep.

Martini and Goldstein also point out that the project's June 2014 feasibility study mentions that the array won't be able to collect pieces of plastic smaller than two centimeters across. If your impression of the oceans' plastic contamination is that it's all intact grocery bags and water bottles, that may not seem like a big deal. But the vast majority of plastic in the ocean is made up of particles one centimeter and smaller, remnants of larger pieces broken up by ultraviolet light, the corrosive effects of seawater, and physical abuse from wave action and marine creatures.

In fact, as the ocean pollution activist group 5 Gyres Institute suggests, The Ocean Cleanup's plans seems to be based on a notion of ocean plastic that just isn't true. As the group's Anna Cummins wrote in January:
The idea that there are "patches" of trash in the oceans is a myth created 15 years ago that should be abandoned in favor of "clouds" of microplastics that emanate out of the 5 subtropical gyres. Our recent publication in the journal Plos One estimates 269,000 tons of plastic from 5.25 trillion particles, but more alarming than that is it's mostly microplastic (>92 percent in our study) and most of the plastic in the ocean is likely not on the sea surface. Recent research has shown microplastics in ice cores, across the seafloor, vertically throughout the ocean, and on every beach worldwide. The little stuff is everywhere.

If you follow the life of plastic in the oceans, as we have done for 50,000 miles since 2009, you find the large items leaving coastlines in droves, then it rapidly shreds as it migrates toward the calmer waters of the subtropical gyres where sunlight, waves and nibbling fish rip it to micro-size particles smaller than a grain of rice. Microplastic then flow [s] through the bodies of billions of organisms, making their way out of the gyres to deeper currents, and ultimately the seafloor. That's the end-life of plastic.
Included in the burgeoning world of microplastic: microbeads, an arguably useless gimmick included in personal care products now entering the world's oceans in alarming amounts. KCET's "SoCal Connected" looked at microbeads in a segment earlier this year. 5 Gyres and others are working to ban microbeads jurisdictions worldwide.

In other words, if 98 percent of the problem plastics in our oceans are the size of grains of rice or smaller, building a plastic collector that takes only pieces larger than 2 centimeters from the top three meters of the ocean would seem a fairly useless exercise.

2. The collectors will break really, really quickly.
It's hard to imagine a better description of actual conditions in the oceans' gyres than this one, written by veteran ocean conservation activist Stiv Wilson, Policy Director for 5 Gyres Institute, in 2013:
So far, we've taken one gyre cleanup advocate across the South Atlantic, from Brazil to South Africa. We had 22 days of storms with seas in excess of 30 feet at times. By the time we got to the other side, some 30-plus days later, he'd abandoned his hope of cleaning the gyres once he realized how big a "place" we're talking about... the sea is one giant corrosive force. Even on just a month-long sail across The South Atlantic, we tore our sails twice, broke some rigging, and utterly destroyed a wind-powered generator -- all due to the force of nature. Any blue water sailor will tell you about how destructive the sea is to anything with moving parts. That's why sailors say, "a boat is a hole you fill with money." Heck, outer space is less corrosive to machines than the ocean is.
Promotional photos offered by the Ocean Cleanup folks show the booms floating on a nearly flat, glassy sea, where it's easy to imagine them remaining intact for months on end. In 30-foot seas, how long would those booms last before breaking apart? Martini and Goldstein, in their review of the project's June 2004 feasibility study, express serious doubts whether the structures would withstand bluewater stresses for very long.

In that review, Martini and Goldstein pointed out that the study "severely underestimated" the stresses to which the booms would be subject under typical ocean storm conditions. The designers modeled their study on average ocean currents rather than likely peak currents, raising the possibility that the booms would be exposed to tougher currents than they could handle as much as half the time. (It's the extremes, not the averages, that break equipment.)

In order to keep the booms stably placed within the currents they're intended to clean, they'd need to be securely moored. Slat and company say that some of the booms would be deployed in water as much as 4,000 meters deep. That's twice the current maximum depth at which ships or other structures have ever been moored.

And when the currents in which the booms are moored shift, point out Martini and Goldstein, the booms could deform, seriously reducing their ability to collect plastic -- or even spilling collected plastics back into the ocean.

And then there's the issue of "biofouling," the term of art used to mean "marine critters using your expensive equipment as a place to live." Place a rigid object in the ocean and within 24 hours, bacteria and diatoms will have attached to it, creating a "biofilm" that then provides habitat for algae and protozoans. That in turn provides a place for larger organisms like tunicates, sponges, mollusks, and crustaceans -- barnacles being the most familiar example of the latter.

And that adds weight to the structure. The Ocean Cleanup's feasibility study itself says that biofouling could add tens to hundreds of kilograms of extra weight per square meter of submerged surface. That could sink the booms. It would change the way currents flow along that three-meter-deep skirt beneath the booms, altering the efficiency with which the booms funnel plastic into the collection area.

There's also potential for damage from a very specific kind of biofouling: larger fish "vandalizing" the structures. "Fish bite" damage to submerged equipment, from sensors to mooring lines, is a real thing.

Slat's test next year will deploy a boom that's one five-hundredth the length of the proposed booms that are his ultimate goals. It remains to be seen how well that far shorter model holds up in the relatively protected waters of the Korea Strait. As currently described, it seems likely that the larger versions would, after the first winter storm, become part of the floating ocean plastic problem -- 600 miles of plastic per boom.

3. The project will harm wildlife.
Slat's team says in its feasibility study that they don't have a workable solution to the biofouling issue, saying that mechanical cleaning of 24,000 kilometers of boom floating in the open ocean would be too expensive. Martini and Goldstein point out that the only other approach that's even close to workable would be for The Ocean Cleanup to use so-called anti-biofouling coatings on their equipment, to slow down the rate at which the structures are colonized by marine life.

Though research is being done into new surfaces that are resistant to biofouling, using nanomaterials technology, the standard anti-biofouling coatings in use these days are chemical treatments that contain "biocides." Biocides are pretty much what they sound like: substances that kill living things. The idea is that biocides incorporated into the coatings will deter organisms from forming that biofilm that starts the biofouling process.

The problem is, anti-biofouling coatings have a finite effective lifespan. And that's in part because the biocides leach out of the coatings.

Imagine 24,000 kilometers of boom coated with anti-biofouling coatings leaching biocides into the ocean -- from a project intended to benefit marine life.

The most effective biocidal coatings, and the most widely used, are compounds in the tributyltin family, which are known to leach into seawater and pose documented risks to microorganisms and larger marine life. Some governments have moved to phase out tributyltin, but there aren't many economical alternatives.

The booms pose physical threats to marine life as well. The designers claim that neutrally buoyant microorganisms such as plankton will merely flow beneath the three-meter skirts. That may be true for some species, but marine biologists point out that the North Pacific gyre (for instance) has planktonic organisms that don't stray from the highly oxygenated waters found right at the surface of the ocean, and that such species would likely be swept up in large numbers. Any plankton that's swept up into the collectors will be separated out by centrifuge, the effects of which Miriam Goldstein described thusly in a marine scientists' email list server conversation:
Most zooplankton don't survive being caught in a standard manta net, never mind being spun in a centrifuge. They might still be twitching, but they have lost a lot of their important parts, like antennae and feeding apparatus. When we want to capture live zooplankton, we use special live-collection nets and are very, very careful. For gelatinous zooplankton like salps, the only way to bring them up in good condition is to individually capture them in glass jars on SCUBA. I am highly skeptical that any significant proportion of zooplankton are viable after caught in a net and spun at 50 RPM.
As for larger organisms, the feasibility study itself says this:
Highly migratory species will be highly affected by this project. Swordfish, marlin, sailfish, sharks, tuna-like species are all highly susceptible to being caught in the holding tanks, and possibility diverted by the booms into the platform.
The Ocean Cleanup makes much of the fact that their booms are unlikely to directly ensnare large wildlife due to the skirt's smooth surfaces. Due to biofouling, those smooth surfaces may not last long. Among the pieces of plastic floating in the ocean are "ghost nets," discarded pieces of fishing net sometimes hundreds of meters long. With 24 1,000-kilometer booms scattered across the oceans, the possibility that such ghost nets would get hung up on patches of barnacles growing on the skirts is significant. And since the boom would be moored and the ghost nets would suddenly stop moving with the current, animals that do move with the current would face greater threats from those nets.

As mentioned above, the public image of plastic pollution in the oceans differs greatly from reality: only a tiny percentage of discarded plastic is found in large floating pieces that would be easily swept up by Slat's booms. Ironically, such floating plastic is highly likely to have itself been "biofouled," adopted as a home by marine organisms that would be injured or killed during the collection process.

In 2014, Charles Moore -- original discoverer of the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" -- found a floating island in the North Pacific thought to mainly consist of trash washed out to sea by the 2011 Japanese tsunami. The 50-foot island was home to an apparently permanent population of sea anemones, algae, clams, and mussels. That's just an indication of how readily wildlife will colonize every available surface in the ocean -- including floating plastic. And that means that the plastic Slat's design can collect is the plastic most likely to have wildlife stowaways.

One wonders just how much help from The Ocean Cleanup the oceanic wildlife of the world can withstand.

4. Recyclers don't want the plastic.
Slat and his colleagues say that the end destination of the collected plastic is land-based plastics recyclers. This is unlikely to turn out to be the case. Unlike glass and aluminum and high-quality paper, which can be recycled a number of times into products similar to the original.

But when you put your plastic water bottle in the recycling bin, you won't be getting a recycled plastic water bottle at the other end of the process. Plastics' polymer chains break down too readily when melted, meaning that your water bottle becomes a lower-grade plastic product, and usually not a disposable one.

That means that plastics recycling is actually better called "downcycling," and it's not a solution to the problem of disposable plastics. And that's assuming that plastics recyclers have access to a supply of clean, sorted, high-quality discarded plastic, such as you might find in a residential or office recycling bin.

Slat's machines, on the other hand, will be collecting plastic that's been drifting in the ocean for who knows how long, its polymer chains under attack from dissolved salts and ultraviolet light, and absorbing environmental contaminants from random industrial harbors. Instead of being readily sortable bottles and bags, much of the collected plastic will be in small pieces, and that means recyclers would need to use spectrographs to determine whether the salvaged plastic is polyethylene, polyproplylene, polystyrene, or something else altogether.

Plastic recycling is a completely marginal industry, with supply of scrap plastic far outstripping demand. It's only a de facto subsidy by recycling collection programs, which provide a mostly clean, mostly sorted source of scrap plastic at low cost, that makes plastic recycling even slightly feasible. Offer to truck hundreds of tons of contaminated mixed plastic to those recycling facilities, and it's doubtful you'd get a polite response.

5. There's a far more effective way to clean large plastic pieces from the ocean's gyres.
It's called "beach cleanup." Current thinking (no pun intended) has it that as much as half the plastic in a gyre is jettisoned in each rotation, where it then follows ocean currents wherever they lead. often enough, those currents lead to beaches, where the plastic can be removed by volunteer labor with minimal harm to wildlife. If it's not picked up off the beach, the next storm can wash it back out to sea, where it may eventually rejoin a gyre.

That makes our beaches a very accessible part of the ocean plastic garbage cycle, and it just makes sense to focus our ocean plastic cleanup efforts on that low-hanging fruit.
In 2014 on one Beach Cleanup Day in California alone, 66,292 volunteers collected 564 tons of trash, some 80 percent of which was single-use disposable plastic items. That's 564 tons of trash that won't be joining the Garbage Patch.

You can find the next beach cleanup event near you at The Ocean Conservancy's website.

6. It's far more efficient, cheaper, and safer to keep the plastic out of the ocean in the first place.
In a way, it's ironic that supporters of Slat's project in social media have been accusing critics of not contributing to solutions to the issue of plastic pollution, because the net effect of The Ocean Cleanup may well be to persuade regular folks that the problem has been solved, and they don't need to take action to limit the amount of plastic that goes into the world's waterways.

There are initiatives already taking place that promise to significantly reduce the amount of plastic trash making its way into our oceans. More and more places are enacting bans on disposable plastic grocery bags, a major component of plastic pollution. Single-use plastic water bottles are another bit of low-hanging fruit just asking to be banned, a move some national parks have already taken.

As mentioned above, bills to ban plastic microbeads are advancing, including Assembly Bill 888, which passed the California Assembly in May and is now being considered by the California State Senate.

We're not discounting the importance of clever technological approaches; they just don't belong on the ocean. Some municipalities have had good results from putting screens on strom drains and collecting the accumulated plastic. Baltimore operates a "Water Wheel" where the river Jones Falls flows into the city's Inner Harbor. In the last year, that device has filled dumpsters with almost 200 tons of trash that would have flowed into Chesapeake Bay.

But the ultimate solution to the problem of ocean plastics is to stop using so much single-use, disposable plastic in the first place, whether as packaging or in single use items such as drinking straws. Once that plastic gets to the ocean, there's no technological quick fix, no matter how much we might want there to be one. We've got to stop counting on some bright young inventor to save the planet and start doing it ourselves.