Science Friday:A massive plastic structure could clean the ocean’s plastic, but it’s not that simple.


In this Monday, Aug. 27, 2018 photo provided by The Ocean Cleanup, a long floating boom that will be used to corral plastic litter in the Pacific Ocean is assembled in Alameda, Calif. Engineers will deploy a trash collection device to corral plastic litter floating between California and Hawaii in an attempt to clean up the world’s largest garbage patch. The 2,000-foot (600-meter) long floating boom will be towed Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, from San Francisco to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an island of trash twice the size of Texas. (The Ocean Cleanup via AP)

Everyone knows about the problem of plastic in the ocean; after all, the recent pushback against plastic straws has made everyone aware of how much our waste affects marine life. A potential solution to cleaning up much of the floating plastic has been devised by Boyan Slat, who has come up with the idea of putting an immense plastic tube in the ocean that would effectively corral the plastic and collect it until it can be picked up by an “oceanic garbage truck” and disposed of. The tube would be about 2,000 feet long and would be driven by the waves and wind. This seems like a great concept at first, but closer inspection reveals some flaws to the idea.

Even though this plastic tube would collect much floating plastic, much of the ocean’s plastic sinks, which means that it would go uncollected and that it would still be able to harm marine life. Also, the floating tube would mainly focus on the major trash collections in the ocean, like the Great Pacific Garbage patch. Therefore, much of the plastic that is spread out throughout the ocean will also go uncollected. According to George Leonard, a chief scientist at the Ocean Conservancy, only three to five percent of ocean trash is actually collected in the major garbage patches. With the combination of the plastic that sinks and the trash that is spread out, Slat’s idea will certainly be missing a lot of the plastic it is trying to find.

In addition to missing much of the trash, Slat’s plastic tube could potentially cause harm for marine life itself. When large structures float in the ocean, they often attract many fish and other species to them; effectively, they become small communities. Thus, if marine life is attracted to the plastic tube, it would be surrounded by all the plastic that the tube collected, which would obviously be very dangerous for the species that populated the community. Also, algae and bacteria would likely grow on the structure and weigh it down, which might interfere with its purpose. It is even a possibility that plastic from the tube itself could shed and contribute to the problem that it is trying to solve. It is problematic that this system could potentially harm the marine life that it is trying to save.

It seems that efforts to clean up the ocean should first focus on the sources of the plastic. After all, cleaning up the open ocean is pointless if more plastic keeps flooding in to take the place of the disposed trash. The World Economic Forum states that 90 percent of the plastic in the ocean comes from 10 rivers, and eight of them are located in Asia. Clean-up efforts should be focused there in order to stop the flow of plastic. Luckily, China is making great efforts to clean up its rivers and start recycling waste, and India (along with 193 other nations) signed a resolution to reduce plastic in the ocean.

Humanity has to take more responsibility for cleaning up the ocean; quick fixes like Slat’s plastic structure and using less plastic straws in Starbucks may make people feel more comfortable that there is actually something being done for the problem, but the truth is that much of the plastic comes from rivers in Asia and Africa. The real fix for cleaning the oceans is figuring out how to help the communities that live around these rivers manage their waste and recycle it so that it does not end up in the rivers. Until we can do that, a plastic tube floating in the ocean is only a way to deal with the plastic, not prevent it.

Ben Crnic is a contributor for the The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at

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