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The project: The Ocean Cleanup
P our resident PhD and expert said:
This ocean cleanup reminds me of the solar roadways idea and the wind energy ideas which always pop up, and those oddball ideas with enough marketing that always seem to dupe the soft science/tech media every few months. Some of these are naive. Some miss fatal flaws in feasibility, either technically or financially. Many of these ideas seem to just be in the right place at the right time to get media attention, or these days, go viral. And occasionally there’s one that really is a good idea.
But others are marketing built on what can at best be described as willful ignorance and at worst, dishonesty. And those ones always seem to get the most attention. As I mentioned, wind energy is a great example: Dodgy wind? Why “innovative” turbines are often anything but
The article I found which critiques the ocean cleanup idea is here: The Fallacy of Cleaning the Gyres of Plastic With a Floating “Ocean Cleanup Array”
If you don’t want to read it, the TLDR is that this falls into the naive category. These people have no clue how BIG the ocean is, how corrosive, and how physically punishing it is – something like the structure proposed by Boyan Slat wouldn’t survive a year – it might not last a month – and that’s assuming it’d be economical if it did survive, which it won’t. There’s no market for the waste plastic, it’d devastate the plankton and other sea life, and actually plastic will tend to wash up on beaches eventually anyway.
So it turns out Mr Slat has responded, rather comprehensively: Responding to critics
Scanning through it:
Point 2 – he says his idea is new because there’s no patent. Yes there’s no patent but that only means if anyone had the idea, they didn’t try patenting it. I have personally had this idea myself and so has everybody else who’s thought about the problem for 5 minutes. It’s not a new concept at all; similar devices have been used to contain oil spills for years, and everybody with any experience in ocean cleanup operations knows about them and would use them for cleaning up bigger messes if they could.
Point 3 – he says they have designed a 100 KILOMETER long barrier that will withstand the open ocean. If he was Elon Musk I’d still want evidence that such a structure could be feasible. How do you keep 100km of floating barriers under control in ocean conditions without the links being ripped apart? Perhaps there’s something I’m missing. But it is very easy to assume they simply don’t comprehend the environment or physics involved.
Point 7 – they talk about how they can turn the plastic gathered into products, even if of lower quality. If this were true, where is all the plastic we put in recycling bins going? It’s already gathered in convenient boxes, and we could melt-form that together, to “make new materials” as Mr Slat says. We don’t do that because it’s still not worth it.
Manufacturers don’t want unsorted plastic debris because they can’t work with it economically. They can’t make usable, predictable products without the right feedstock. They want nice, uniform, homogeneous, clean material, if they can get it. So if random debris from recycle bins isn’t in demand, once we factor in the cost of gathering hugely dispersed material which will make this debris even more expensive as a feedstock than the recycle bin debris that ALREADY we have trouble finding markets for… it looks bleak.
I’m scanning through more of Mr Slat’s document, and to be fair much of what i’m scanning looks reasonable, if it is assumed the claims stack up (i.e. they really did a study on this or that, they did a proper simulation and had it validated etc – but so many times when I’ve heard such things, i’m disappointed when i dig)
My take on it is this. If a device such as this really could be built, I’d hope they simply incinerate the plastic collected for its calorific value. It’s analogous to the problem of the plastic supermarket bag. Yes you could recycle it, but once you take into account the energy required to gather all the bags and transport them to a recycling centre, you’re going to be burning more fossil fuels per bag than if you were to just burn the bag. FAR more. Try weighing one of those bags; they weigh nothing. A drop of oil. Burn more than that drop in processing, and you might as well have just burned the bag.
Which is why I’d hope Mr Slat’s idea, if it were made real (and it’d be damned impressive, building a 100km-long barrier in the ocean), simply burned the plastic. You could expend energy, send good money after bad, recycling them into poor-quality products that get thrown away anyway. Or perhaps you could extract the energy.
There’s one more problem brought up by the critics, which I agree with: if we could recycle this plastic, more plastic would keep getting into the ocean. And there’s more virgin material being produced all the time. All that, along with anything we recycle, will just keep getting into the oceans. We need a solution at the source, not the sink. This technological fix reminds me of ideas from decades ago, in which the real problem of production is ignored while we attempt to dream up clever disposal methods. It’s great people are thinking about these things, but attempting to clean the ocean is an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. We tend to find putting a fence at the top negates the need for the ambulance.
Good on Boyan Slat for trying. Perhaps some aspect of what they develop can be used in other technologies and techniques to reduce, reuse and recycle. But the idea, as it is, looks technologically infeasible (the length of the barrier and the open ocean conditions you’d expect, not to mention many other things I’ve not discussed), financially infeasible (the proposed use of the debris collected) and missing a couple elephants in the room (the pointlessness of attempting to make products from such feedstock and the focus on the sink rather than the source)
We know that the debate on the Ocean Cleanup is happening – there are of course the detractors on one hand and on the other, its supporters. It is great that such a debate is happening – a true reflection of the equalising power (at times) of the internet. I feel that this debate is indicative of a much bigger shift, a reflection on how society today thinks. We are on one hand skeptical of big ideas and quick fix solutions, yet on the other, we hold out hope that the current status quo can be changed, that there is a game changer that will make society and the world a better place. The art is balancing on the fine line between the two. Nobody wants to hate for the sake of hating, and of course, the most difficult notion to grapple with, nobody is absolutely correct in anything, and we should not hope to be.
Personally, I am a naturally skeptical person, I want to know the facts, the data, the truth. I’m not really interested in big solutions for problems unless I truly understand what the problem actually is. I am a big believer in understanding the theory before applying the knowledge. Of course, in today’s digital and social media crazy age, these are not traits that immediately scream game changer.
I accept that fact. Of course, when I was younger, I was infinitely more optimistic and less risk averse, willing to try new things. Today, I think (or would like to think) I am more sedate and considered in my responses. It is true what they say – ignorance is truly bliss. Ignorance I find lets you walk off the cliff edge without worrying if the drop is 1 feet or a 100 feet. This is both a good and bad thing. I think when we have a hunch, our intentions are pure. We are truly curious about why or why not some things are the way they are, we will question and try to find answers.
I applaud the 19 year old boy for having the courage to voice his hunch, maybe it works, maybe it won’t but we won’t know until we try. Reflecting back on the conversation, my friend mentioned that he hopes he is wrong. Yes, experts might say that it won’t work, or it’s not feasible. But don’t we always root for the Davids rather than Goliaths. We should not let opinions stop our questions and inherent curiousity on finding out why things are the way they are and how we can change them. Everything starts with a hunch, they can be good or bad – and we will get better at sorting them out as we get older but we should not discourage them, because then we won’t have the opportunity to learn from them and to grow, or even to be able to learn how to differentiate the good from bad. So some advice? If you have a hunch and it is not well received, take it with a pinch of salt, learn from it and move on. Sometimes though, your intuition will tell you otherwise, and there will be this burning desire to see your hunch through – in this case, throw some of your caution to the wind and go with it and see where it takes you (much much easier said than done) but trust me – it is better to know than to regret. And remember, fortune favours the brave – nothing ventured, nothing gained.
So back to the topic of the fine line between idealism and skepticism – I think the main messages are:
- Trust yourself, trust your intuition and your sense of judgement
- Believe in your capabilities
- Have the humility to admit when you get it wrong
Don’t ever lose your sense of wonder and curiousity – question all things, be open minded, listen to new ideas and persevere when you find the one thing you truly believe in, but also remember to always take a step back and reflect on your actions and intentions. Nobody is absolutely right or wrong as things are not absolutely black and white – there are nuances and with time, age and experience, I hope you will acknowledge that and apply it to your work. As with all things – this is a cycle, more often than not, you will get a hunch, and you will want to do something about it – by all means, go for it, see it through. Make mistakes, small ones, big ones but always admit when you make them. And it is ok to start over, to start again with a new hunch if the old one didn’t work out, you will get more than one hunch in this lifetime, I guarantee you that. So with this in mind, you can now tread the fine line between skepticism and idealism.