Plastic Pollution: A small solution to a big problem?

News Science and Technology

Image Credit: NOAA/Department of Commerce/Ben Mierement, NOAA NOS (ret.)

Over the past few years ocean plastic pollution has made its way into mainstream media and has even earnt the attention of politicians. Thanks in part to Blue Planet II, the British public was made aware of just how large a problem plastic pollution is for the world’s aquatic life. Now a solution is being rolled out to try and tackle the problem.

After 5 years of development a new method to rid our ocean of plastic, the Ocean Cleanup, launched last week for sea trials. The idea, first proposed in 2012, is that of Dutch entrepreneur Boyan Slat, who claims the project can remove 90% of the plastic in the North Pacific garbage patch by 2040.

The device consists of a 600-metre-long floating boom with a 3-metre skirt beneath the waves that sweeps up floating plastic in the ocean. The boom provides the buoyancy whilst the skirt prevents the plastic from escaping beneath it. After a period of time the plastic swept up by the skirt is collected and removed from the ocean.

Concerns do exist regarding the affect that the device may have on open ocean ecosystems and marine life. However, a risk assessment commissioned by the firm found no real cause for concern, with only minor disruption to marine life suggested. However, the study did find that the device would pose a higher risk to sea turtles, who may be attracted to the system and ingest the collected debris.

The Ocean Cleanup project also fails to target both the source of plastics and the vilified microplastics that have the potential to cause toxic bioaccumulation in the food chain-the process whereby the toxic microplastics become more and more concentrated in fewer organisms higher up the food chain, that we as humans may then consume.

Although not tackling the microplastic problem directly, the Ocean Cleanup is working to reduce macro plastics in the ocean that will eventually breakdown, thus contributing further to the production of microplastics.

The Ocean Cleanup isn’t the silver bullet in mitigating plastic pollution, but then what is? If implemented with the correct government policies, the Ocean Cleanup has a chance of reducing plastic waste and continuing to raise awareness of a very real threat to aquatic life. With a 2018 study finding 180 times more plastic than biomass in surface trawls conducted in the north pacific garbage patch, this project can only be a good thing. You can find out more out the project here.


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