Ocean Cleanup accused of organizing removal after plastic appeared too clean
Environmental organization The Ocean Cleanup has denied accusations it staged a massive plastic removal operation after social media users claimed the debris looked too clean.
The Ocean Cleanup shared footage on Twitter of a net pulling in 3,810 kg (8,400 lb) of plastic it had removed from a piece of ocean known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The video can be viewed here.
The Great Pacific Garbage Area is an area between Hawaii and California where a large amount of trash, fishing gear, and other marine debris has accumulated. Large amounts of debris accumulate there because it is surrounded by the subtropical North Pacific Gyre, which is a system of swirling ocean currents.
The plastic is brought to the trash by the currents, but settles when it reaches the center of the gyre, which is a calm and stable part of the water. He then finds himself trapped in the middle.
A 2018 study estimated that there were around 79,000 tons of plastic in the patch.
The Ocean Cleanup was founded in 2013 by Dutch inventor Boyan Slat. It aims to eliminate 90% of plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by 2040, with plans to scale up its current operations over the next few years.
It uses trawlers to catch the plastic, tied to the back of its vessels. The organization has implemented a system using large trawlers to maximize the amount of plastic captured. Bycatch, the incidental capture of marine animals such as fish, is often an integral part of fishing and plastic cleanup operations, as modern fishing nets and gear are effective at catching anything in their path.
The Ocean Cleanup claims to have developed nets and technology that avoid the amount of bycatch if their nets and the fish can easily get in and out.
However, the latest footage has raised suspicion among experts, with many claiming it is staged.
Experts wondered why the transported plastic looked so clean, when some had been in the ocean for decades. Others have raised concerns that there appears to be no biofuel on the plastic, which refers to the growth of organisms such as barnacles and algae.
Trevor Branch, an associate professor at the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences, first raised his suspicions in a tweet, saying it was “strange”.
He said Newsweek“The plastic they picked up, most of which is between 10 and 30 years old, is so clean and free of organisms that usually grow very quickly on anything in the ocean…although I don’t be a biofouling expert, others had similar questions.”
Similarly, David Shiffman, a marine conservation biologist at Arizona State University, said Newsweek he thought the images “raised eyebrows”.
“The images they showed are just not at all what they would look like if you were really dragging a big net across the ocean and picking up plastic that had been floating there for years,” he said. he declares. “It’s too colorful, nothing grows on it and they only caught plastic.”
A spokesperson for The Ocean Cleanup, said Newsweek that clean plastic can be explained by “various factors”.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is what’s called “oligotrophic,” they said, meaning it’s very low in nutrients. “There’s a reason these subtropical gyres – where we’re currently busy catching plastic – are also called the ‘deserts of the sea’. Nutrients usually come from rivers or upwelling from deeper water,” they said.
“However, these gyres are away from land and dominated by downwelling, not upwelling. This means that very few nutrients reach these gyres, resulting in less algae growth and a plastic that remains relatively clean in appearance.”
Biofouling usually only occurs on parts of objects completely submerged underwater, they said. However, if the plastic comes out of the water, the UV radiation will stop any biofouling.
“Good examples of this are buoys or floats,” the spokesperson said. “Underwater they’re usually covered in barnacles, while above they’re usually starved of marine life. Some of the plastics we catch have additives added. This protects them from UV light,” preserving thus their colours”, and biofouling organisms (in particular for objects used in fishing).”
Boyan Slat, CEO of The Ocean Clean Up, also spoke about the lack of biofouling on Twitter. He also said it was due to oligotrophic waters and UV light.
Branch said the explanation that the gyre is oligotrophic and low in nutrients is true.
“However, other reviewers of the images report heavy biofouling in similar areas,” he said. “Their explanation that UV light stops things from growing on plastic is unlikely. UV light is just sunlight, and algae needs sunlight to grow.”
David Shiffman’s job title has been updated.