The Ocean Cleanup Array Hits a Snag. Some Say 'I Told You So...'

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CC BY 2.0. Ingrid Taylar -- Not a shopping bag, but still a piece of unwanted plastic pollution in the ocean

Apparently, the first array just isn't holding onto plastic long enough to allow boats to collect it.

When The Ocean Cleanup's first array cleared initial trials and headed out to the Great Pacific Garbage patch, many of us TreeHuggers celebrated.

And there's good reason why we are hungry for such a solution. After all, the dire state of plastic pollution in the world's oceans is such that marine life will be living with our detritus for millennia, even if we were to entirely cut off the flow of trash to the oceans tomorrow.

That said, others—often more knowledgeable than I—have long been sounding alarm bells. Some said, for example, that the sheer cost of the effort would be better spent on lower tech solutions like mass beach cleans or training scuba divers to catch ghost nets. Others pointed to concerns about its impact on the wildlife. Others simply posited that the concept won't work; the diffuse nature of ocean plastics and the extreme environment of the open ocean is simply too complex a challenge to easily clean house without something going wrong.

It brings me no joy to report that detractors now have at least one data point to bolster their argument. Fast Company reports that Array Number One is not holding onto plastic long enough to allow crews to go and pick it up. Here's how founder Boyan Slat explained the issue:

“The main principle behind the cleanup system is to have a difference in speed between the system and the plastic so that it goes faster than the plastic, and you can collect it,” says Boyan Slat, CEO and founder of The Ocean Cleanup, who first conceived of the device as a teenager and then raised money to make it a reality. “What we see now, however, is that the system is not moving fast enough. There’s multiple hypotheses for that.”

Predictably, the experts who have been skeptical of the idea have been speaking out about what they see as a colossal waste of resources:

Meanwhile, Slat himself is arguing that the problem should be fixable—perhaps even out at sea—and that critics are missing the fact that most of the results from this initial test run were actually right on target:

Exactly who turns out to be right will, of course, remain to be seen. For those wanting to dig into the arguments a little more, Science Magazine published a good summary with multiple voices—including the excellent folks at 5 Gyres whose work we have covered before and who view this particular project as somewhat of a red herring.

I, for one, would love to see this work. But I'm also aware that silver bullet solutions can be seductive, distracting, ineffectual and sometimes have unintended consequences. I do hope the naysayers are proved wrong.

But in the meantime, it might be best to go participate in a #2MinuteBeachClean and not wait for someone else to save us.