Solving the plastic dilemma

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I find it exhausting when we declare problems unsolvable, as though dedicated dollars and engineering haven’t already granted us the gifts of flight, cell phones and space travel. By comparison the things we have yet to figure out, like ridding plastic from our oceans, should be seen as a matter of time and talent, not insurmountable obstacles.

In 2013 The Ocean Cleanup took on exactly this challenge, designing a floating platform meant to anchor amid the great garbage patches of the world – containing over 5 trillion pieces of plastic between them – and filtering them clean without disturbing wildlife. This was never going to be cheap or simple, but after several failed versions, a working design has finally begun to cleanse the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest in the world. The news broke in early October.

This charity is bringing the garbage its platform collects ashore for recycling with the express goal of cleaning themselves out of business, reducing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by half in five years time. By 2040, with an array of around 60 such platforms installed across the world’s oceans, they hope to remove 90 per cent of marine plastic globally, including those masses making up the North Atlantic Garbage Patch, the closest one to home which you’ve probably contributed to personally.

Plastic is the great unsolved problem, a product which is strong, durable, cheap and convenient, and which doesn’t decompose, clogging ecosystems on land and at sea. One does not need to look far for scarring footage of rivers hosting more plastic than water; of albatrosses vomiting candy wrappers and bottlecaps onto their chicks; of beached whales, starved by the trash obstructing their intestines; all without mentioning the leeching of chemicals into water and wildlife alike. Each and every one of us ingests tens of thousands of microplastic particles annually without a thought, or a firm grasp of the consequences.

I applaud any and all efforts to do away with plastic, but what to do in the meantime when there’s no getting away from it? As our government moves ahead with bans on single-use plastic products and manufacturers innovate new forms of packaging entirely – some are very cool – how do we square efforts to remove plastic from our oceans with the steady stream of new plastics flowing in? Here again, The Ocean Cleanup offers a solution.

The majority, they say, of the 8 million tonnes of plastic entering our oceans each year does so by way of rivers, with 1,000 rivers in particular accounting for 80 per cent of that tonnage. With this in mind, The Ocean Cleanup created the Interceptor, a river mounted platform which captures the vast majority of downstream plastics. Three are already in operation, in Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, with a fourth on its way to the Dominican Republic. These machines are entirely solar powered, fully automated, and text the relevant authorities when they need to be emptied. They were announced in late October.

Plastic is ubiquitous, found in some of the remotest places on Earth. Archaeologists of the future will call the sedimentary layer from 1950-2050 the age of plastic, rich with the remains of our failed experiment. It’s only right that we undo as much of the damage as possible, and I’m entirely unsure how we’ll address the multitudes of plastic already at the bottom on the ocean and other unreachable extremes, but the inventions of The Ocean Cleanup are an important start, as are plastic bans, plastic alternatives and the thoughtful purchases of an informed public. I hope one day to see the North Atlantic Garbage Patch dismantled by an army of cleansing platforms, the St Lawrence River scrubbed clean by an Interceptor, and a commensurate proliferation of waste free stores.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes.