Over the past couple of years I've had many good, creative conversations with colleagues engaged with solving the growing problem of plastic pollution in the ocean. Some are scientists, activists, and politicians, others artists and explorers. What we all share is the strong desire for a clean and healthy ocean, one without heaps of dangerous and toxic plastic in it.
The challenge is how to get there from here, when here is a society addicted to the presumed convenience of single-use disposable plastics and generally unaware of the true costs of the mess we've made of things.
Some have proposed bold, expensive ocean-wide clean-up schemes. Their idea is to filter out plastic from the surface waters of a continent-sized area of the North Pacific otherwise known as the Great Garbage Patch, or the Plastic Vortex, or the Pacific Plastic Gyre, etc. They'll then recycle the plastic into fuel or some other useful material.
I admire the "out of the box" thinking, the "let's solve the problem" attitude, and "the sky is the limit" ambition. We need more of that. However, I tend to approach things logically and realistically. I'd start with pilot projects that are likely to succeed, require modest startup funding and provide a stepping stone to bigger, bolder, sexier, more revolutionary plans.
The ocean is a big place--a really big place. In fact, most of the images you will see about the plastic pollution problem come from shallow coastal waters, beaches and rivers. Even those used in the media portraying the problem "out there" are not out there at all, but come from shallower oceans, close to land. Getting a few thousand vessels out to the middle of the Pacific to filter small bits of plastic from seawater, then back home again, will be difficult and expensive.
So, here's an idea: Why not clean up the plastic that can be reached on foot or by kayak, expending no fuel at all? We could hire thousands of young people who are eager for meaningful, outdoor work. If there is, in fact, a use for plastic as fuel, the best source of the raw material is the stuff right here in our backyards.
Assuming that all goes well and we succeed in removing the coastal plastic, we can push further out into more remote parts of the ocean. But, let's not start there, let's cross that bridge when we come to it.
Focusing on the problem closer to home is critical. Most of our ocean commerce happens in coastal areas. It's where most of our fishing occurs, most of our ocean recreation takes place, and it's where most of the ocean life lives. The lion's share of the ocean plastic pollution starts in our communities, in our landfills, and our refrigerators.
Don't get me wrong, thinking about all that plastic "out there" bugs me to no end, keeps me awake at night. And cruising around on the high seas is exciting and brings needed attention to the problem of plastic pollution. But the real work is right here, in our homes and in our backyards. And the most urgent cleanup expeditions are equally close by, accessible to anyone with a bit of time and the ability to walk, swim or paddle.
Before we go to the moon, let's learn to walk. Before we spend scarce eco-funding in the middle of the ocean, let's test our ideas right here where people can see the results firsthand and where such efforts are virtually free. Above all, let's work to solve problems before they become unsolvable problems. Let's move our society away from single-use disposable plastics to the numerous off-the-shelf, non-plastic, recyclable, biodegradable and/or reusable alternatives on the market today.
By applying logic and reason to our plastic pollution problem, we'll begin to solve it. And once we begin moving towards that solution, there'll be no stopping us.