Home » Are ocean plastic cleanup efforts really making a difference? It’s complicated

Are ocean plastic cleanup efforts really making a difference? It’s complicated

The Ocean Cleanup is one of the more prominent organizations engaging in cleanup efforts both in the ocean and in other bodies of water. Scientists are a bit skeptical of the material they put out, like flashy social media videos showing literal tons of plastic trawled from the ocean. Experts reached by Southern Fried Science expressed some alarm at the Ocean Cleanup’s efforts, particularly when it comes to how the group’s techniques may impact marine life. Many felt the group’s founder lacked key information about the nuances of plastic waste cleanup and promised to hit goals that sounded outright impossible.


Others, including experts who spoke with Hakai last year, felt that the Ocean Cleanup’s efforts are only one piece of addressing plastic pollution, though those efforts could inadvertently send a message that individual and policy changes aren’t needed if the Ocean Cleanup is seemingly doing the work. Both Yonathan Shiran, a circular economy expert, and Greenpeace USA’s John Hocevar believe that “closing the tap”—in other words, eliminating plastic production altogether—plays perhaps the most important role in addressing plastic pollution in the ocean and on land.

“We’re making the problem worse at a pace that far exceeds what we can possibly clean up. We need to close the tap as quickly as possible,” Hocevar told Hakai. “Then I’ll be more excited to clean up the mess.” Ultimately, it comes down to being able to actually reduce the amount of plastic ending up in say, the five gyres in the world’s oceans such debris typically floats toward, compared with the amount of plastic still being generated and—more often than not—thrown out.

The Columbia Climate School gets to the heart of the matter, while also highlighting research Shiran contributed to:

What is required is fundamental and systemic change that includes the banning of single-use plastics in favor of products designed to be recycled or repaired, and more recycling infrastructure. Breaking the Plastic Wave, a Pew Report, identified the measures which, if implemented, could cut annual dumping of plastic into the ocean by 80 percent in 20 years. These include reducing plastic consumption, substituting plastic with compostable materials, designing products and packaging with recycling in mind, increasing recycling, proper disposal of plastics that can’t be recycled, and reducing the export of waste.

An array of solutions are what truly make a difference in addressing plastic pollution and even reducing emissions as the world continues battling climate change. According to MIT Climate, plastic emits its own greenhouses gases and can even harm the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon. There’s nothing wrong with keeping up beach clean ups and removing what we can from the ocean before it’s reduced to microplastics. But policy changes and pushes for circular, sustainable production are the only way to ensure these efforts aren’t simply all for show.


November 2022