The online ocean science community has been vocally skeptical about the Ocean Cleanup, a device that aims to physically remove plastic pollution from the ocean. Drs. Kim Martini and Miriam Goldstein published a technical review of its feasibility over at Deep Sea News, and Andrew asked some important questions that have yet to be answered. Also, be sure to read environmental journalist Chris Clarke’s thorough overview of these concerns.
Overall concerns include a lack of understanding of the problem (including but not limited to the fact that much of the harmful ocean plastic is small and well-dispersed), insufficient structural integrity for a large object that will be deployed in the open ocean (which would result in the object breaking and creating even more ocean garbage), and the fact that this device is designed to aggregate objects of a certain size to remove them from the water but cannot distinguish between plastic and living things.
Mainstream media coverage has been noticeably less critical of the Ocean Cleanup, often presenting the idea as revolutionary and it’s creator as a genius.
I am not an expert in ocean plastic pollution. However, the uncritical tone of most mainstream media coverage of the Ocean Cleanup does not seem to correspond with my impression of expert opinion on this matter from speaking with expert colleagues who study this.
Through professional contacts, I developed a list of 51 ocean plastic pollution experts who work in academia, government, and the environmental non-profit sector, and I sent them some questions about the Ocean Cleanup. 15 (4 in academia, 5 each in government and the non-profit sector, and 1 in industry) agreed to participate in an anonymous survey. While this is not (and not intended to be) an exhaustive survey of the entire field of ocean plastic pollution, the broad agreement among a diverse group of experts is telling. Below, please see what they had to say through some representative quotes. Some respondents chose to provide an on-the-record quote, while many chose to remain anonymous out of concerns about reprisal.
I also asked Lonneke Holierhoek, COO of the Ocean Cleanup, to respond to these concerns. Her comments are included in each section.