A long-winded plea

Twitter has been upsetting me lately.

It’s not Twitter’s fault – the social media platform is merely the medium – it’s what’s happening on Twitter that’s making me upset.

On September 9, The Ocean Cleanup’s System 001 made its way out of the harbour of San Francisco. This has been the dream, ambition and goal of The Ocean Cleanup founder, Boyan Slat, since he was 16.

While the exact design of the System may have changed over the past five years, his mission, to “rid the world’s oceans of plastic” has remained the same.

I learned about The Ocean Cleanup last year when they were still running computer simulations and testing prototypes in the North Sea. September 9 was a HUGE day for them. In the next five years, they want to reduce the amount of plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by 50%.

The System is meant to cleanup the floating plastic and garbage through passive collection, using wind, waves and ocean currents. From there it will be picked up by ship and taken back to shore where they plan on recycling and selling it.

That’s the basic idea.

Now, in my time following The Ocean Cleanup, reading articles by them, about them, following them on Twitter and watching Boyan Slat give presentations, there are two things I don’t remember them claiming: a) that we should ignore the flow of plastics coming from the continents; and b) that this System will solve the microplastics situation.

Now, what does all this have to do with Twitter?

I respect The Story of Stuff immensely. I learned a lot about microfibres from them and have since tried to limit my clothing purchases to natural fabrics like cotton, linen and silk. They also have a great video about bottled water. They focus on education, awareness and stopping plastic at its source.

But on September 12, three days after the launch of The Ocean Cleanup this is what they tweeted:

Let’s pause here, because these 251 characters made me do a double take the first time I read them.

Will pick up some of the floating debris

I don’t see anything wrong with that. That actually sounds good to me. Fifty per cent in five years. That equals “some”.

Will not pick up microplastic

This is true. The System wasn’t designed for microplastics. The majority of microplastics are below the surface and are, as their name suggests, so small that they won’t be stopped by the passive System’s design.

Unfortunately we don’t have a solution for getting microplastics out of the ocean…yet.

Could entrap animals

I’ve read about this, but until there are full System trials, we won’t know if it’s true or not. Of course I don’t want anymore animals to get hurt, but I need to point out that they’re being hurt and killed right now by all the plastic that’s in the ocean. I’m personally of the mind that if The Ocean Cleanup was to discover that its System was having negative impacts on animals, it wouldn’t turn a blind eye.

Doesn’t stop plastic pollution at the source

Now this, this made me lose my mind a little bit, because…

  1. When did Boyan ever say that this would stop plastic pollution at the source?
  2. When did Boyan ever say that it was The Ocean Cleanup’s mission to stop plastic pollution at the source?
  3. Who said that The Ocean Cleanup has to focus on stopping plastic pollution at the source?

This is like Boyan turning around and saying that The Story of Stuff isn’t physically going out to the Garbage Patch and cleaning it even though they never said they would.

It’s like me buying a broom and complaining that I can’t use it to wash dishes.

Or like buying a new shirt and complaining to the manufacturer that it’s not a pair of jeans.

Worse than that, it’s saying, “what you are doing does not have value”.

And then only a few days ago, I see this from 5Gyres, another organization I respect and another organization that focuses on stopping plastic pollution before it ever makes it to the ocean.

First, it clearly states on The Ocean Cleanup website that they plan on taking it back to shore, recycling it, selling it and even using it to make branded products they can sell to continue funding the cleanup.

Second, I repeat “The System wasn’t designed for microplastics.”

But it is designed to remove macroplastics – the source of microplastics.

So maybe that’s not a direct answer to 5Gyres’ question but it’s something and when did we stop appreciating something because it didn’t do everything?

Sorry Eiffel Tower – you aren’t the Empire State Building or the CN Tower, so you better step up your game.

Okay, I’m being ridiculous, but so are they.

This attitude they’re taking is toxic. People that care about the same thing should be helping each other, building each other up, not tearing each other down!

And because I have mad respect for all three of them, it makes me upset. Upset enough to write a long-winded blog post on the matter.

In a TED Talk by the founder of the Plastic Bank, David Katz says, “If you were to walk into a kitchen, sink overflowing, water spilling all over the floor, soaking into the walls, you had to think fast, you’re going to panic; you’ve got a bucket, a mop or a plunger. What do you do first? Why don’t we turn off the tap? It would be pointless to mop or plunge or scoop up the water if we don’t turn off the tap first. Why aren’t we doing the same for the ocean?”

To extend the analogy, Katz’s description assumes that there is only one person in the kitchen. But what if there are a bunch? If they all rushed to turn off the tap, the floor would remain wet. And once the tap is turned off, are they just going to leave the floor wet?

I personally think it would be valuable for someone to turn off the tap and someone to mop up the floor.

Maybe I’m taking the analogy too far, but do you see what I’m saying?

I’m happy there are organizations like The Story of Stuff that are focused on education and awareness. I’m happy there are organizations like The Ocean Cleanup that are approaching it from a completely different angle. And I’m happy there are organizations like 4Ocean who take yet another approach.

I’m happy that a bunch of brilliant, dedicated people care and are doing something.

Better yet, I’m happy that I can support all three of them.




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