A Look at The Surprising Complexities of Ocean Cleanup
By Jane Marsh
Plastic pollution is one of the most pressing issues of our time, as millions of tons of plastic enter our oceans every year. It’s not as simple as throwing a net into the water and pulling debris out. For one thing, plastic is diverse in size and structure, with some having broken down into microscopic beads.
Experts must utilize advanced technologies and skills to ensure success without further damaging marine habitats. Likewise, there must be global cooperation and awareness of the issue for changes to occur.
Let’s dive into why ocean cleanup presents so many challenges and whether scientists can overcome them.
6 Complexities of Ocean Cleanup
The ocean accounts for 97% of the planet’s 332,519,000 cubic miles of water. Unsurprisingly, humankind has explored very little of the vast sea.
Its expansiveness has made it difficult for scientists to estimate the amount of plastic pollution accurately. Meanwhile, trash has already reached depths inaccessible to people.
In 2019, Victor Vescovo landed his submarine 35,850 feet below the surface of the Mariana Trench’s Challenger Deep — the deepest part of the ocean. It was uncharted territory, as Vescovo was the first person ever to reach it. During his four hours mapping the area, Vescovo discovered something particularly alarming — trash.
That plastic debris reached these depths is a rude awakening. Sadly, humans can’t clean up the ocean at those depths where the pressure is crushing.
Beyond 20 feet, divers risk injuries to the ears and lungs from pressure changes. Coupled with low visibility and strong currents, it is not an easy job.
It’s hard to say how many marine animals die from ingesting or choking on plastic debris annually — although estimates are in the millions. According to one study, an average-sized turtle must consume only 14 plastic items for it to be fatal.
While numbers like these are enough to kickstart cleanup efforts and eco-conscious lifestyles, few people discuss the ramifications of the cleanup process itself.
Although The Ocean Cleanup has received fanfare for its trash removal efforts in the floating North Pacific Garbage Patch, scientists are wary.
Experts predict the Garbage Patch has nearly 80,000 tons of plastic larger than 0.5 millimeters. The Ocean Cleanup drags nets between two ships to collect plastic debris — similar to trawl fishing. Unfortunately, you risk marine bycatch this way, including fish and turtles.
Fossil fuel-burning vessels also drag the nets, which have many people raising their eyebrows.
You can be out on the water daily, removing plastic debris — but it will always be there the following day. The world produces a whopping 400 million tons of plastic annually.
More needs to be done to address the world plastic problem. Some governments have banned single-use plastic, including individual states like California, Hawaii, Connecticut and New York. However, people require accessible information regarding recycling — a lack of knowledge has hindered green lifestyle changes.
Additionally, scientists must examine the root of the problem. After all, plastic has to enter the ocean from somewhere. Studies predict over 1,000 rivers cause 80% of global plastic emissions yearly — between 0.8 and 2.7 million metric tons of macro- and microplastics.
Another problem cleanup organizations face is the constant movement of plastic debris from ocean currents. There are many other trash patches besides the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Ocean currents drag trash to these locations, where debris accumulates for years. Additionally, winds and tides move plastic across the sea — some of which stays at the surface while others sink to the bottom.
Moving plastic trash has even carried unlikely coastal species into deep waters. In a 2023 Nature Ecology & Evolution study, scientists discovered 37 coastal species on 70.5% of plastic items. These nonnative species include worms, anemones and crustaceans.
The findings could have implications for larger species in the food web, such as turtles and fish. It also underscores the risk of invasive species taking hold in deep sea waters, which could create another ocean recovery problem.
In 2015, 193 nations agreed on 17 objectives for ending poverty and environmental protection. For the sustainability goals alone, two former diplomats suggested it would require over $87.3 billion annually to clean up marine pollution by 2030.
The hefty price tag would also cover investments in converting synthetic plastic into biodegradable plastic, improving wastewater treatment capacities and installing advanced technologies for pollution-inducing industries.
The cleanup expenses are significant, but the cost of leaving plastic debris alone is too high. In the U.S., marine pollution costs the tourism industry between $35.28 to $352.8 million annually. The numbers are dire for coastal communities relying on tourism as their primary industry.
As previously mentioned, there is a lack of awareness about plastic pollution and recycling. Governments must ramp up policies and regulations to prevent excess plastic pollution. Yet, an initiative this size requires widespread cooperation among nations and the global population.
In March 2022, representatives from the United Nations backed a resolution regarding the life cycle of plastics. The legally binding draft should be completed by 2024, supporting plastic alternatives, reusable and recyclable materials and products and scientific and technological collaboration among countries.
According to a Pew Research Center report, governments could save $70 billion by investing in reuse systems and sustainability instead of new plastic production. Likewise, they must improve recycling and collection infrastructure and create new incentives for industries, investors and the public.
Scientists and engineers have made strides in developing new technologies for ocean cleanup efforts. However, there’s a long way to go before progress is satisfactory. Saving our seas from plastic pollution requires a global undertaking of advanced mechanisms and robust policies and regulations. Likewise, the world must slow down or eliminate its use of plastic to prevent further damage.