Skip to content Skip to footer

Using Giant Nets to Clean Plastic Out of the Oceans Comes With Substantive Risks

Flashy ocean cleanup technology is not a silver bullet for our plastics problem.

Flashy ocean cleanup technology is not a silver bullet for our plastics problem.

Ships sway on the high seas as they trail large nets scooping enormous hauls of plastic from the waters. The plastic from the nets is then coughed up on the ships’ hulls in an enormous jumble of multicolored regurgitated waste.

These dramatic images appear in videos by The Ocean Cleanup — a nonprofit organization led by Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, who founded the organization some 10 years ago when he was still a teenager. The project uses sea nets and river interceptor barriers in service of the organization’s stated aim of removing 90 percent of floating ocean plastic by 2040 — a grand summit with an awfully steep climb along the way.

A study from just this March estimates as much as 358 trillion plastic particles afloat on the ocean, possibly weighing as much as 5 million metric tons. Given these daunting figures, it’s easy to understand why The Ocean Cleanup has emerged from its crowd-sourced beginnings to become a major philanthropic magnet.

In its 2021 audit, the organization boasted year-end cash reserves of 42 million euros. Earlier this year, Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia donated $25 million to the project, which has also partnered with global corporations as Coca-Cola and the car company Kia.

But The Ocean Cleanup is not without its detractors. For one, critics say the use of such nets to sweep plastics from the seas can disrupt and damage sensitive aquatic ecosystems. Others characterize the project as, at best, an inefficient waste of tremendous resources, and at worst, a deliberate obfuscation of the ultimate fix to ocean plastic waste — cutting the problem off at the source.

Some of the industries that support The Ocean Cleanup project “want the public to think it’s a solution because [plastics have] worked for the last half century,” said Marcus Eriksen, co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute, an ocean plastic research and advocacy organization. “So, of course they’ll support ocean cleanup because it supports their narrative, and it gets a lot of eyeballs from the public.”

“I Feel Like the Money Is Misdirected”

Perhaps the flashiest parts of The Ocean Cleanup’s strategy are the giant booms used to sweep the oceans. The organization deployed its first such large-scale cleanup system in 2021 in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is located between Hawaii and California and is estimated to contain up to 100 million kilograms of plastic. As of February, that system had removed close to 200,000 kilograms, or about 440,000 pounds, of plastic waste from the Pacific. Every six weeks, the ship ports in Canada, where it dumps the plastic for recycling, changes crews and restocks supplies for the next six-week venture.

The Ocean Cleanup is in the process of rolling out an updated version of the current system for simultaneous work on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — a beefed-up system that is supposed to be ten times as effective as its predecessor and three times larger.

The organization claims on its website that it currently compensates 100 percent of the CO2 emissions associated with its support vessels, and asserts that its updated cleanup system will have lower ecological costs than its current system:

Scaling up to a larger size and harvesting more plastic additionally helps reduce our CO2 emissions per area of ocean cleaned, limiting our environmental impact even further. By continuing to harvest plastic on a greater scale, the cost of our cleanup in both financial and ecological terms will drop — and will keep dropping as we scale up even more.

Much of the media coverage of The Ocean Cleanup project has been glowing, but critics have rightly warned the public against expecting a techno-fix such as this to function as a silver bullet against the sprawling problem of ocean pollution — and have also pointed to other significant concerns with the project’s implementation.

One limitation of the project lies in the it’s targeting of large plastics and debris near the ocean surface. This approach, say critics, misses a more insidious and damaging feature of the pollution problem — microplastics. Of the plastic pollution on the ocean surface alone, an estimated 92 percent of it is sesame seed-sized or smaller.

Another problem? Marine life inadvertently gets swept up in the nets, including delicate communities of “neuston” — teeming ecosystems of small vibrantly colored creatures that provide a habitat nursery and a vital food source for a wide range of marine creatures.

Neuston are largely found in the same locations littered by the five main gyres clogging the world’s oceans. Rebecca Helm, an assistant professor of marine biology who studies the ecology and evolution of life on the ocean’s surface, warned in 2019 that The Ocean Cleanup’s practices put these vulnerable systems at risk. “Cleaning up 90 percent of the plastic using the current method means potentially destroying 90 percent of the neuston,” she wrote.

Then there’s the issue of the program’s stated goal of recycling the wastes it collects. Not all plastic waste is or can be repurposed into something useful. Indeed, only about 5 percent to 6 percent of the total plastic waste generated in the U.S. in 2021 was recycled, due to the growing cost of collecting, sorting, transporting and reprocessing these materials, many of which are made from ingredients simply too costly or difficult to reconstitute. On top of that, leading food companies are breaking promised goals for using packaging made from recycled materials. Still, given the enormity of the problem posed by ocean plastic pollution, it’s understandable why environmental advocates are in two minds about The Ocean Cleanup.

“If we spend money doing prevention and try to figure out solutions to packaging and other things like that, it would probably go a long way.”

“I admire that they’re trying to come up with new ways to address this problem. But I feel like the money is misdirected,” said Jen Kennedy, executive director of the Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation, a Gulf of Maine-focused marine protection nonprofit.

“People are donating to it, which is great, people are really worried about the problem, and they want to support cleanup efforts,” Kennedy added. “But on the other hand, if we spend money doing prevention and try to figure out solutions to packaging and other things like that, it would probably go a long way.”

Interestingly, the majority of ocean plastic waste — more than three-quarters of it — never makes it further than 100 miles beyond the shore between the coastline and the ocean, with a lot of the trash leaving rivers getting pushed back onto land within the first few days or weeks. Which is why Kennedy’s organization — like many others — focuses so much of its time and energy on beach cleanups.

But the attention and resources focused on programs like The Ocean Cleanup, said Kennedy, have contributed to waning interest in these beach cleanup efforts from philanthropic groups. “There’s a lot of funding agencies that have shied away now from funding cleanups because they are prioritizing prevention,” she said.

A more worthwhile branch of The Ocean Cleanup’s multi-tentacled approach, said Kennedy, is its growing battalion of river “interceptors” designed to snag as much debris as possible before it enters the ocean. Indeed, more than 1000 rivers account for 80 percent of plastic emissions into the world’s oceans. “This is a lot better than some of their open ocean [work] which can be so problematic,” she said.

Alternative Models

Other critics of The Ocean Cleanup argue that the program has had a much more corrosive effect at the root cause of the ocean plastics problem — that as fossil fuel use for energy is declining, fossil fuel use for chemistry is increasing, with petrochemical companies doubling down on plastic production.

“Some of the folks who are funding it now are the stakeholders who have the most to lose if producer responsibility and restrictions on product design come into play,” said Eriksen.

Truthout contacted The Ocean Cleanup for comment, but a representative declined to set up an interview, saying: “We only accept a handful of interview requests to ensure our limited resources are allocated appropriately,” pointing instead to the project’s FAQ webpage.

The UN has long been working on a global treaty to end plastic pollution. Earlier this year, the U.S. submitted a proposal that focused primarily on recycling and reuse, though included tighter restrictions on product design. A separate proposal from the 40-state High Ambition Coalition was more pointed in its efforts to significantly curb polymer production and to engender better supply chain transparency.

Should such regulations into source reduction or product design restrictions come seriously into play on a global scale, “that’s going to cost these companies so much more than the pennies they are giving [The Ocean Cleanup] right now,” said Eriksen. But until then, what would Eriksen do instead of the program’s ocean sweeps?

One option would be to offer monetary rewards to fishermen to collect the trash. “I could take one-tenth of the money they’ve raised and collect more plastic trash by incentivizing the fishermen to do it,” said Eriksen, pointing toward existing programs mirroring that strategy in places like Hawaii, which offers financial recompense for derelict fishing gear captured and returned to shore.

Ultimately though, said Eriksen, “the ocean is such a dynamic system. It’s moving constantly. And so, if we did nothing, I would suspect within just a few short years, you’d see a dramatic drop in measurable ocean trash,” he said, explaining that such waste would either drop to the sea floor or wash ashore. “Focusing on ending what’s going in the ocean from rivers, from coast lines, from shipping industries, from fishing fleets, that’s where it’s going to start.”

A critical message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $37,000 in the next 5 days. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.