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 Patch 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 press 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 million tons ends up in waterways each year. But plastics aren’t just in the marine environment — they’re also in our soil, air, lungs and food; not to mention the climate and social-justice issues linked to plastic production, use and disposal.
A complete systems change
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 paradox, 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 status quo.
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 triple 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 nature.”
What’s more, trawling for large debris does nothing against microplastics — which are even more problematic than large floating debris.
The Ocean Cleanup has identified around 1,000 rivers responsible for the vast majority of ocean-bound plastic, 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 principle, Dixon said — otherwise known as extended producer responsibility.
A global plastics treaty and what it means for legacy cleanup
Last year, UN member states agreed to begin negotiating a legally binding global treaty to end plastic pollution. The road to becoming international law is paved with multiple meetings of an **Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee** (INC) tasked with negotiating the treaty. Nations are expected to vote on ratifying a final treaty in mid-2025.
So far, negotiations 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 treaty deliberations.
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 chain.
“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 pollution].”
The Ocean Cleanup declined to be interviewed for this story.