The ocean cleaning systems: a new solution or a new problem?

An interview with Marcus Eriksen from the 5 Gyres Institute

Photo courtesy of Jody Lemmon — 5 Gyres Institute

One of the greatest environmental problems of our era is the pollution of the sea. A huge part of this is due to plastic floating in the sea, causing the so-called “Garbage Patches”, five huge gyres of marine debris which can be found in the heart of the oceans.

Image courtesy of CSIC, Malaspina Expedition, 2014

The problem has been studied for almost 30 years now, but any feasible solution appears to be far away. But there are many subjects at work on this issue, in order to find a sustainable solution. The most famous one, nowadays, is The Ocean Cleanup Foundation, created by the young Dutchman Boyan Slat. The 20-year-old entrepreneur provided a great visibility to his project with conferences and talks all around the world. Now The Ocean Cleanup reached its goal of 2 million $ from crowdfunding, necessary to start projecting and building a system which removes plastic from the sea. The idea is to create a sustainable system which catches plastic and floating debris without harming wildlife. Recently, The Ocean Cleanup Foundation announced that the first system will be installed off the coasts of the Japanese island of Tsushima, in the seas between Japan and South Korea. The whole floating system should be operating by the second quarter of 2016.

Photo courtesy of Joan Costa, CSIC 2014

But there are many concerns regarding this and all other projects led to remove trash debris from the waters. One of the people who strongly stands against this type of solution is Marcus Eriksen, co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute (together with the discoverer of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Charles Moore), who recently wrote that these recovery projects are “a terrible idea”. The main point is that at the moment we do not need to remove plastic from the oceans, as this activity would be almost useless due to the size of the problem and because, most of all, we need to stop pollution from its source: plastic doesn’t have to reach the seas.

The 5 Gyres Institute is constantly working in new studies on the Garbage Patches. Some VIPs have been invited on board to join some of the expeditions in search for plastic debris, and there are new projects going on every year. So I contacted Marcus Eriksen for a short interview about their recent activities. Here it is.

Marcus Eriksen — Photo courtesy of Stiv Wilson — 5 Gyres Institute

5 years have passed since the beginning of the 5 Gyres Expedition. What has changed since then?
Our five gyres expeditions focus on research, but also science education and solutions. There have been more publications in the past two years, then in the previous four decades. We now have a very good understanding of the problem. It is now time for focused solutions.

Which are the main improvements in our knowledge on the pollution of the oceans?
We know that plastic accumulates in the ocean and breaks into microplastics, creating what we call a “plastic smog”. We have found micro plastics on every page worldwide, throughout the vertical water column, and deep sea sediments, in sea ice, and inside hundreds of organisms. There are many documented ecological impacts. It is safe to say that plastic in the ocean is dangerous.

You stated that the only solution to the plastic pollution in the seas is to stop its arrival to their waters. But the latest statistics report that today this huge amount of plastics and other materials is mainly caused by developing countries, which have less technologies to eliminate trash in a sustainable way. How can this situation be improved?
We must improve waste management in developing countries. But we must remember that recycling in developing countries is very efficient when products and packaging have value. I have spent time in India and I can say that valuable plastics are not on the ground.
So, besides waste management, companies must design for recovery. If your product is not recovered, because it has no value, then you must choose a non-dangerous material besides plastic.
To summarize, it is improved waste management and design for recovery that will solve this problem.

5 Gyres is now cooperating with Jack Johnson and other celebrities. How will they be involved in your activities?

We treat celebrities on our expedition like anybody else. They help to sail the boat, to do the research, and to listen to all lectures. I was very appreciative of Jack Johnson coming on board and being one of the crew. We need people like him to spread the message to his wide audience. Jack Johnson, as a UNEP ocean ambassador, can do just that.

How the public can help your activities? Are you recruiting volunteers for your expeditions?

We invite everyone to come on our expeditions. When you leave the boat you are an expert on this issue. You also have the skills to do the science yourself. We need more citizen scientists to help us monitor the world’s oceans.

In a recent post on your blog you stated that recovery schemes are a “terrible idea”. In your opinion, are there any sustainable solutions to remove the trash accumulations already existing in our oceans?

Understanding that plastic in the ocean is like plastic smog, and knowing that plastic in the ocean is fragmented so quickly, and knowing that the ocean ejects plastic smog out of the sea, it becomes silly to focus time and money on ocean cleanup.
You will have much more success by focusing on rivers, and then all the way upstream to the design of products and packaging itself.

What else is useful to know for the Italian audience?
I think it is the responsibility of Italy not to contribute plastic trash to the Mediterranean. It is important to support programs that monitor the quality of rivers leaving the coast. Italian citizens may also get involved by making smart consumer choices, reducing your plastic footprint, and by going into the field and doing your own science and education work.
Five Gyres Institute did send some equipment to an oceanographic Institute in Venice. Italy is our cherished partner.