Published 7 months ago.
About a 6 minute read.
Image: The Ocean Cleanup
Some say the outsized focus on legacy plastics cleanup is analogous to carbon removal versus reducing carbon emissions at the source: ‘like putting a band-aid on a broken leg.’
The Great Pacific Garbage
is Exhibit A of the plastic crisis. It’s also a focal point for The Ocean
Cleanup — a nonprofit fishing for ways to clean
up ocean plastic. The Ocean Cleanup has gotten a lot of
lately, particularly for its work trawling the Great Pacific Garbage Patch for
plastic debris. According to
founder Boyan Slat, The Ocean Cleanup has removed 0.2 percent of the patch’s
plastic and is on course to remove 1 percent of the Patch by year’s end.
But some smell a red herring. For Christina
Dixon of the
Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA),
enthusiasm for “legacy plastic cleanup” needs to be reined in.
“Cleanup efforts are like putting a band-aid on a broken leg,” Dixon told
Sustainable Brands®. “It doesn’t deal with the root causes of the
problem. We need to make sure that any interventions are designed to stop
plastic from entering the ocean in the first place.”
No one really knows the true extent of ocean plastic pollution; at least 14
ends up in waterways each year. But plastics aren’t just in the marine
environment — they’re also in our
not to mention the
issues linked to plastic production, use and disposal.
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The Ocean Cleanup is best known for its use of trawling to filter plastic debris
floating on the high seas and intercepting its flow from rivers. Charismatic
cleanups — whether they be carbon dioxide removal or legacy plastics cleanup —
get a lot of attention but do little to stop pollution at its source, Dixon
said. A classic example of the Jevons
Dixon believes getting better at cleaning up the mess only encourages more waste
and buys time for the status quo.
“We need a complete systems change if we’re going to address the lifecycle
impacts of plastic,” she said. “These investments would be much better placed,
in my opinion, in things like infrastructure for reuse systems … The real focus
should be on not letting it get into the environment in the first place. That’s
the crux of it, I’m afraid.”
The outsized focus on legacy cleanup is analogous to carbon removal versus
reducing carbon emissions at the source. Such “false solutions,” as Dixon calls
them, distract away from real solutions — solutions that mean disrupting the
And business-as-usual means more plastic pollution. A lot more. Plastic
production is expected to
increase exponentially without upstream interventions; plastic waste — mostly
from packaging, consumer products, and textiles — is expected to
by 2060. Petrochemicals are the fossil fuel sector’s Plan B, Dixon said; so it’s
no wonder that so much petrochemical
buildout is underway.
Also unsurprising to Dixon is the hype about cleanups — a classic reactive
measure producers use to shift the onus of action onto consumers.
“There’s a very human response to seeing plastic in the environment,” she said.
“People want to do something; and I believe that the industry has used that to
market solutions that won’t effectively solve the plastic pollution issue. It’s
very convenient to make it a consumer problem and appeal to people’s good
What’s more, trawling for large debris does nothing against
— which are even more
than large floating debris.
The Ocean Cleanup has
1,000 rivers responsible for the vast majority of ocean-bound
and it’s looking for ways to stanch these hemorrhaging arteries before they
reach the ocean. Dixon could get behind river intercepts as they’re able to
capture waste streams before they enter the ocean. What’s more, river intercepts
don’t require massive amounts of fossil fuels required to sail thousands of
kilometers into a garbage patch.
“One of our biggest concerns about The Ocean Cleanup model is that any of the
benefits of cleaning up plastics are counterbalanced by the emissions involved
in running the ships and traveling great distances,” Dixon said.
Disrupting marine ecosystems with nets and ship traffic will also likely have
negative consequences, she said.
Instead of cleaning up whole swaths of ocean, EIA recommends targeting areas
where plastic pollution has a disproportionately high impact on people and the
environment. Legacy cleanup must be preceded by risk analysis — taking into
account emissions, habitat destruction, cost and more. Any intervention should
be underscored by the polluter-pays
Dixon said — otherwise known as extended producer
Last year, UN member states agreed to begin
a legally binding global
to end plastic pollution. The road to becoming international law is paved with
multiple meetings of an **Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee**
with negotiating the treaty. Nations are expected to vote on ratifying a final
treaty in mid-2025.
have focused on both upstream and downstream interventions; and cleaning up
plastic that’s already in the ocean is likely to become law when the gavel is
banged. Ocean states — most of whom aren’t responsible for plastics production
but bear the brunt of the plastic wave due to imports and rising tides of ocean
plastic — are speaking up for the inclusion of legacy plastics cleanup in the
Dixon recommends developing criteria to guide cleanup efforts toward the
highest-impact projects; but she said that’s likely to remain lower priority at
the INC than upstream interventions. Negotiations shouldn’t spend much time
deliberating the legacy cleanup issue as the real solutions lie in huge,
systemic changes across the plastics value
“The toxic impacts of plastic are felt from the moment of production right
through to that moment when you see them in the marine environment,” Dixon said.
“The focus of the negotiations needs to be on the prevention [of plastic
The Ocean Cleanup declined to be interviewed for this story.
Published Apr 6, 2023 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST
Christian is a writer, photographer, filmmaker, and outdoor junkie obsessed with the intersectionality between people and planet. He partners with brands and organizations with social and environmental impact at their core, assisting them in telling stories that change the world.