Thursday, April 11, 2013

Cleaning Up the 5 Gyres

You may have seen in the past week or so reports of a 19-year old Dutch student who claims to have invented/designed/imagined a device that would clean up all the plastic floating in the 5 Gyres, also known as the Great Garbage Patches. While I thought maybe I would comment on the non-viability of the device, I'm glad I didn't as I ran across a pretty good takedown of it yesterday. What made the takedown all the more pleasant to read was that it was written by Stiv Wilson of the 5 Gyres Institute.

Long-time readers of this blog know that Stiv and I have...well...not been able to agree on much of anything in the past. That's not entirely true, as we both hate the existence of the Garbage Patches. There is no reason for garbage to be in the oceans at all. But Stiv has always gone out of his way to exaggerate the extent of the problem, way beyond what the evidence shows.

He does do some exaggeration in his latest critique (more on the exaggeration in a minute) but overall he thinks the proposed garbage collector is flawed because 1) the oceans are far more vast in size than most people realize [*] 2) the ocean environment, especially the corrosivity and intense storms with no place for shelter, are very harsh on equipment 3) the economics are poor 4) the inability of the design to not also catch zooplankton and algae, and 5) the device would not ensnare plastics that are below the surface, which is a fairly large portion of the pollution. I think the reasons he gives are all excellent.

Stiv can throw a good zinger too such as this one:
"The public, for their part, loves the thought of a quick fix and wants to believe that a ‘boy genius’ can come along and solve a problem that all the old crusty PHDs can’t. It’s a great story, but it’s just a story. I find debating with gyre cleanup advocates akin to trying to reason with someone who will argue with a signpost and take the wrong way home. Gyre cleanup is a false prophet hailing from La-La land that won’t work – and it’s dangerous and counter productive to a movement trying in earnest stop the flow of plastic into the oceans. Gyre cleanup plays into the hand of industry, but worse, it diverts attention and resources from viable, but unsexy, multi-pronged and critically vetted solutions."
Notice the obligatory assault on the plastics industry. (Hey Stiv, I would love to see this plastic-free fleet of boats you take to the Gyres. No nylon ropes or sails? No rubber tubing for fuel and water lines? No gel coats and paints on the surfaces? No electronics with internal PVC-coated wiring?)

As I mentioned, there are a couple of comments from Stiv that I disagree with, such as this one about recycling plastics:
"Most plastics are very difficult to recycle not because we lack infrastructure, but because they’re not worth enough in a commodities market to incentivize [sic] venture capitalists to invest in more infrastructure to process them."
That is something that I have covered many times - the economics for recycling plastics are there - the prices make the resins attractive and demand for them keeps growing every year. And you certainly don't need venture capitalists to make these investments.

And of course Stiv then pulls out this old chestnut about "downcycling":
"But even when plastics do get recycled, in the vast majority of cases, recycling only kicks the can down the road one generation by creating a product that can’t or won’t (because of economic constraints) be recycled again."
which I debunked just two days ago.

Realize that I am only criticizing these statements since they speak to recycling plastics in general. Speaking specifically about the plastic in the Gyres, any effort to recover plastics from the them will be extremely uneconomical, even if these devices could be build for free and worked like a dream. As Stiv says, "Hiring people to climb trees in New York City to gather all the plastic bags in their branches would be more efficient and cheaper than ocean harvesting."

So will Stiv and I ever get along and become BFF's? I'm not sure that either of us will live long enough for that to happen, but I am happy that maybe we are seeing more eye-to-eye. I see things this way: a problem this big in both space and time will require a multitude of efforts over extended periods of time from the most of the people of the world to achieve any degree of success. Picking on one industry in one country is as simplistic an approach as any proposed ideas for cleaning up the Gyres. Changing human behavior (regarding waste disposal as much as buying habits) will ultimately determine the success and failure of these efforts.

[*] I drove from Chicago to LA and back last summer - 2100 miles each way. Yet 2100 miles is pretty much the width of the Atlantic Ocean at its narrowest (St Johns, Newfoundland to Clifden Ireland). To build a device that is even a tiny fraction the size of this distance can be done (look at the roads, railroads and pipeline that span those distance), but only with a tremendous amount of manpower and materials. Remember, for every square mile of land you see, there are 2 square miles of ocean that you don't.


Anonymous said...

Interesting as I too have read commentary on both the rebuttal and the original idea. I agree that this one Ted talk offers much risk in thinking, oh the problem is solved. At the same time, discussing potential ideas for fixing problems also addresses the idea that there is a problem to solve. Its through group thinking that we continue to develop change!

John said...

Thanks for the comments, although you have a different idea of what "Group thinking" is than most, I believe. Group thinking is the sheeplike behavior of people all thinking the same and not questioning the wisdom, but instead assuming safety in numbers. But that is a side issue.

I am all in favor of hearing new ideas, but I think everyone BEFORE they suggest a new idea needs to understand 1) the extremely large area of the Gyres, 2) the extremely dilute concentration of the plastic, and 3)it's all cheap plastic that is worth less than a dollar a pound.

These are undeniable facts that cannot be overlooked. If someone does, they deserve to rejected quickly and vigorously.