The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and OceanCare — nongovernmental groups based in the United Kingdom and Switzerland — have a new report highlighting what they see as damaging impacts of "quick fix" ocean clean-up technologies used to tackle plastic pollution.
The organizations argue that these technologies — 38 on record at this point — pose a threat to the marine species and ecosystems that they seek to help, in addition to having high capital costs and negative environmental impact through fuel burned to power their operations. They also warned that such technologies distract from policy measures that more effectively address plastic pollution, such as tackling production and consumption.
The report claims that 200 vessel-based clean-up systems wouldn’t clean the world’s oceans in more than 100 years of continuous operation, although they would emit significant amounts of greenhouse gases through the burning of fuel.
In addition, a review of the cost and effectiveness of various solutions to plastic pollution found that interventions increase in cost the further along the pollution chain you go. For example, mechanical recycling directly from consumers costs, on average, 23 cents for each kilogram of plastic waste, while collection technologies such as floating booms cost $30 per kg and SeaBins $1.55 per kg. Importantly, the NGOs noted, policy tools to prevent plastic consumption showed a maximum cost of 9 cents per kilogram. They did not indicate how these costs were calculated.
In a case study of The Ocean Cleanup, the report estimates that its System 002 — in operation between 2001 and August 2023 — collected between 3.7 times to 5.5. times less plastic waste than anticipated. The authors say the vessel cleaned a total of 282,000 kg of plastic from an area of 8,300 square kilometers, contrasting with the anticipated collection rate between 9.900 kg to 14,900 kg of plastic waste per week.
However, the Ocean Cleanup announced in August that it is replacing System 002 with System 03, which is almost three times larger and more efficient. It also features more sophisticated environmental monitoring and safety technology, such as a new Marine Animal Safety Hatch designed to protect marine life.
The organizations also argued that, in order to break even, The Ocean Cleanup would reportedly require $10 billion annually to meet its stated goal of collecting 90 percent of the total volume of plastic the enters the ocean each year, not counting the existing plastic pollution.
In the face of these data, the EIA and OceanCare are calling for international government delegates at the third round of UN negotiations on a Global Plastics Treaty in Nairobi, Kenya, to prioritize reducing production of plastics, rather than focusing on clean-up technologies which can be costly, damaging to the environment, and distract from more efficient solutions like reducing production and consumption.
“We recognize that clean-up measures are an inevitable and necessary part of a full lifecycle approach to ending the plastic pollution crisis,” said Jacob Kean-Hammerson, ocean campaign at EIA, “however, governments and negotiators must seize the opportunity of the upcoming Global Plastics Treaty to put the necessary measures in place to ensure we are not endlessly cleaning-up plastics and when we are, we’re putting people and the planet first”.