This is a crucial point. By cleaning up the surface waters of the ocean garbage patches now, we can prevent a 2D problem from becoming a 3D problem. At this moment,
most plastic is in the upper two meters
of the ocean. If this plastic disperses throughout the top 2000 meters, the volume of water we would need to clean increases a thousandfold. In other words, the effort required to clean a vertically dispersed patch would be like cleaning up today’s ocean garbage patches a thousand times! So we have a brief window of opportunity to take care of the legacy plastic before it turns into microplastics and pollutes the entire water column for an indefinite duration.
From this perspective, one might argue that cleanup is prevention too. By removing the floating trash now, we prevent this trash from doing further harm and becoming almost impossible to eradicate.
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If I could choose, I’d rather catch plastic with Interceptors in rivers than with ocean cleanup systems. Unfortunately, it’s too late for the hundreds of millions of kilos of trash that already pollute the ocean today. Stopping plastic before it reaches the oceans allows us to keep the amount of plastic in the oceans constant, but the only way to reduce the amount of ocean plastic is to clean up that legacy pollution. That’s what we need to do to truly rid the oceans of plastic.
One can debate what the optimal resource allocation is between different removal activities. I agree with those who argue that the majority of resources aimed at solving plastic pollution should now go to stopping the inflow. Yet, that doesn’t mean we should only do one or the other. Humanity works on eradicating diseases, solving climate change, reducing poverty, and improving education in parallel. Clearly, humanity can do more than one thing at the same time.
Returning to the analogy of the overflowing bathtub: here, an optimal strategy might be for a few people to work on trying to close the tap, while one person starts to mop the floor.
You see this parallel approach after an oil spill; some workers attempt to stop the leak, while in parallel, others try to clean up the pollution that has already been leaked to prevent further harm to the ecosystem. Similarly, the prevention and cleanup of ocean plastic can, and should, be applied in tandem.
Cleaning the ocean garbage patches will not be easy. System 002 is currently undergoing testing in the GPGP, and first results look promising. Still, success is not guaranteed. Even if System 002 proves its effectiveness in the next few weeks, there is still a complex journey ahead to scale it up.
All I know is that it’s worth trying.