Why so many of us wanted to believe in an ocean cleanup system that just broke

‘It moves the proposed solution to ‘out there,’ where the trash is, rather than into our own lives, where the trash is being generated.’

A much-lauded multimillion-dollar device intended to purge the Pacific Ocean of its plastic waste has broken, as experts suspected it would, NBC News reports. The device is now being towed to port in Hawaii for repairs, highlighting how a project’s hype says more about our expectations than about its likelihood of success.

The broken device is a curved, 2,000-foot-long plastic tube created by a foundation called The Ocean Cleanup. It’s intended to trap marine plastics bobbing within feet of the ocean’s surface, but a number of experts were skeptical of its chances of success well before it ever went out to sea. And it isn’t the only potential fix for marine plastics, as Laurel Hamers reports for Science News. We could demand legislation to curb the production of plastics. We could trap plastics at the mouths of rivers before they reach the sea, or pick them up on beaches. But a massive gadget seems easier. After all, if a startup is going to fix a human problem with technology, then the rest of us don’t need to change.

Scientists don’t know exactly how much plastic trash is in the ocean, but there are estimates that some 244,000 metric tons might bob on the surface, and another 8.5 million metric tons may sink to the sea floor every year, according to Smithsonian. If that trash stays at sea, it could wind up in a trash hot spot. The most famous of these is a place between California and Hawaii called the great Pacific garbage patch, where currents drag waste like abandoned fishing gear, bottles, and tiny pieces of pulverized plastics.

 Photo: The Ocean Cleanup

There, the plastic stays. “Cleaning up marine debris found in the open ocean is not as simple as it may sound,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The great Pacific garbage patch, for instance, is constantly shifting, the plastic litters the water column from top to bottom, and most of the pieces are minute. Together, that makes cleaning it up expensive — particularly as manufacturers keep making more plastic, and we keep throwing it away.

That’s what Boyan Slat, a 24-year-old entrepreneur, dropped out of college to fix. He founded The Ocean Cleanup in 2013 as a nonprofit foundation. Since then, it’s received about $40 million in donations, according to Slat, and about $7 million of that’s been spent on building a trash collection system called System 001 or Wilson. Long term, The Ocean Cleanup wants to launch 60 of these floating plastic tubes to trap marine plastics.

That’s the plan, anyway. In reality, The Ocean Cleanup’s had a few hiccups. In a test run 350 nautical miles off the coast of California, the team discovered that Wilson had a regurgitation problem: some of the plastic that washed into Wilson’s open mouth washed right back out again, according to the nonprofit’s video. Then, at the end of December, The Ocean Cleanup announced that a 59-foot piece at one end of the “U” had broken off — probably because of the wind and the waves, NBC News reported. The Ocean Cleanup plans to fix the broken part and try to address the washout. “We are, of course, quite bummed about this,” Slat wrote in a blog post.

Outside experts are bummed, too. “Everyone for the sake of the ocean was absolutely hoping it would succeed,” says Nick Mallos, director of the Trash Free Seas Program at Ocean Conservancy. But Kim Martini, senior oceanographer at Seabird Scientific, a company that develops ocean sensors and instrumentation, and Miriam Goldstein, a marine biologist and director of ocean policy at the Center for American Progress, saw challenges ahead. They argued back in 2014 that the trash collector described in The Ocean Cleanup’s feasibility study had design flaws, could hurt marine life, and was inadequately tested. “They had really underestimated what the destructive effects, and even the conditions, in the ocean were,” Martini says. “Granted they’ve done a lot of testing since then, but, as you can tell, I don’t think it wasn’t actually sufficient.”

Joost Dubois, a spokesperson for The Ocean Cleanup, says the team has taken these critiques into account. “We know what we are doing is not easy, and are very well aware that stuff can break in the ocean conditions,” he says in an email to The Verge. “‘Breaking’ for us is, and has been part of the process: design, test, break, repeat.”

Expectations were high, however, since The Ocean Cleanup and Boyan Slat have been media darlings for years. Time magazine named the trash collector one of the best inventions of 2015. HuffPost called it “miracle ocean-cleaning tech.” It’s so appealing precisely because it doesn’t require us to change the way we rely on plastics: if a gadget is going to clean up our plastic waste, then we can keep producing it. “It moves the proposed solution to ‘out there,’ where the trash is, rather than into our own lives, where the trash is being generated,” Alexander Bond, senior curator in charge of the Bird Group at The Natural History Museum in the UK, tells The Verge.

Even if The Ocean Cleanup had been an immediate success, it was never going to be the only solution to plastic pollution. “There is no silver bullet,” Mallos says. And in an email to The Verge, Slat agreed. “We have never stated that we are the one and only solution to the marine plastic pollution problem.” There’s more that needs to be done, like reducing the amount of waste that ends up in the ocean, Slat says. “Which again can be related to having to change the entire way we deal with plastic globally.”

The other potential fixes to the rising scourge of plastic in our oceans that take aim further upstream tend to get less fanfare. Changing how plastic is recycled or requiring that manufacturers be responsible for their product’s life cycle from creation to disposal could help curb future pollution, but it doesn’t offer a fix to the mess we’ve already made. “They’re not getting as much recognition or airtime because it’s not quite as sexy,” Martini says. “It’s a sad thing to say that you made it really messy and you can’t clean it up, but at the rate that we’re actually throwing plastic into the ocean, there are so many more effective ways to stop the pollution.”

Journalist Laurel Hamers rounded up a few of those upstream fixes for Science News. She references Mr. Trash Wheel — Baltimore’s adorable water wheel that captures the waste bobbing down the Jones Falls River before it reaches the ocean. The price of Mr. Trash Wheel and its siblings, Captain Trash Wheel and Professor Trash Wheel, ranged from $500,000 to more than $1 million, according to Adam Lindquist, the director of the Healthy Harbor Initiative for Waterfront Partnership. And Mr. Trash Wheel and Professor Trash Wheel have removed 999 tons of trash that would have eventually washed out to sea.

But cleanups alone aren’t going to cut it, the experts agree: in 2017, manufacturers around the world produced nearly 350 million metric tons of new plastic products, according to the industry group Plastics Europe. It’s at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest place in the ocean. It’s in the sea floor under the Arctic ice caps, we see it on the most remote islands,” says the Natural History Museum’s Bond. “It is literally everywhere.”

With that much plastic flowing into companies, homes, landfills, and eventually the ocean, it makes more sense to stem the flow before cleaning up the mess, he says. It’s like treating a patient in the emergency room. “You don’t figure out to sop up the blood on the floor. You figure out how to stop the bleeding.”

Bond works with birds called shearwaters in Eastern Australia, where he has been documenting the alarming effects of a diet heavy in plastic. He says that the birds’ health reflects the broader health of their ecosystem. “They’re a canary in a coal mine,” he says. “These guys have not been chirping away for 20 years, and we’re still carrying on — not even business as usual, but ever-increasing the production of plastic.”

He thinks that it’s going to take large-scale policy changes to really make a dent. He points to efforts by countries like New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Ghana, Vanuatu, and the UK, which have agreed to combat marine plastics as part of the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance. And the United Nations specifically referenced marine plastics in its sustainable development goals for 2030. “All of these big international policies are really slow,” he says. “But you can’t give up hope, because if you give up hope what have you got left?”

The truth is that none of the potential fixes get as much attention as they deserve — particularly not in aggregate. The reason a technological solution like The Ocean Cleanup’s gets so much press could be because it’s simple: it offers a fast fix without a lot of effort on an individual level — a magic pill for the problem of plastics. And the fact that it’s drawing attention might actually be good, according to Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “I’m worried that at this point, the problem is so low on people’s priority list that people don’t feel guilty about going to their eco-friendly deli and taking out plastic containers of food,” she says. “It’s not problematic to have raised the visibility of this if the press also asks, ‘Is this the most efficient way to do it?’”

Of course, the risk is that touting a technological solution to plastic pollution might make people feel that their individual actions don’t matter. “The danger is that we say, ‘Oh there’s a fix so I can continue to drink out of my plastic straws and carry my groceries home in my plastic bags and drink water out of my plastic bottle,” she says. “These efforts also need to have an argument about individual responsibility of putting the plastics there to begin with.”

Slat says that’s what the nonprofit is doing by trying to clean up the ocean: it’s giving the world a reason to change its relationship with plastic. “By extracting the plastic that’s in the oceans, and showing the mountains of plastic that enter port on the back of a vessel, we bring the problem close to home and making the problem very visible,” Slat says in an email to The Verge. “If the ocean is polluted anyways, why bother trying to not make it worse? But if the ocean is clean again, this could be a much stronger motivator.” Of course, for that to be the case, The Ocean Cleanup’s trash collector will actually have to work.