Cleaning up plastic in the ocean might seem indisputably like a good idea. After all, the oceans make up more than 70% of our planet, and we have basically trashed them. The world dumps a jaw-dropping 17.6 billion pounds (8 billion kilograms) of new plastic into the oceans each year.
There’s so much focus on cleaning up the plastic already in the ocean in part because it’s so visible. But some experts argue that we’re too focused on completely removing all the trash from the ocean—which has reached a point that is, arguably, completely impossible to clean up—and not working enough on the real solution: Stopping production of the stuff in the first place.
Increasing plastic production means that the amount of plastic trash dumped in the oceans could triple over the next few decades. As the world sets about its Black Friday shopping and gears up for Cyber Monday, it’s never been more vital to think about how to end this cycle—even if the solutions are more complicated than simply cleaning up the mess already there.
To sort through some of these issues, I called up Max Liboiron, an associate professor at Memorial University in Newfoundland and a leading scholar of plastic pollution. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Molly Taft, Earther: We’re conditioned to think cleaning up the oceans is a net good, which is why projects that have these lofty goals of taking all the trash out of the sea seem to have such a cultural hold. What’s complicated about that premise?
Max Liboiron: One of the things that’s really important to understand is that cleaning up the oceans is fundamentally different than something like cleaning up litter on the street. That’s mostly because of scale problems. The stuff we’re really familiar with at the scale of being a human does not track into the ocean because the ocean is the biggest thing in the world.
You actually have a scale problem where you cannot clean up the ocean in any way at a rate that is commensurate with the amount of plastic going into it. Microplastics are some of the smallest things in the world. They’re smaller than a grain of rice, and they’re in one of the biggest things in the world from a numbers standpoint.
When we teach pollution science, which is different than litter science, what we teach people is that it’s called a stock-and-flow problem. The best metaphor is, OK, you walk into your bathroom and your bathtub is overflowing. Do you, a) turn off the tap, or b) get a mop? I mean, eventually you’ll do both, but you better turn off that tap before you start mopping up or you will never stop mopping up and you will never catch up to the water spilling out. That’s a great model for job security but a horrible model for dealing with pollution.
Earther: There’s this big cleanup initiative right now on YouTube that has a stated goal of fundraising $30 million to clean up 30 million pounds of trash out of the ocean. It seems like, based on what you’re saying, 30 million pounds may seem like a significant amount to us, but actually isn’t in the grand scheme of things.
Liboiron: It isn’t. I can find you 30 million pounds, like, just outside of town with washed up fishing gear.
Liboiron: Totally. I live in Newfoundland, Labrador, and it is a fishing province. A single gill net is what, 200 pounds? 300 pounds?
Earther: Are you serious?
Liboiron: Yeah, I can get that in a hot minute. We’ve got some serious scale problems.
Earther: What about the argument that surely cleaning up the stuff that’s in there now would have some benefit? Have people done models on the tradeoffs of letting the plastics that’s in the ocean keep hanging out versus trying to get some of it cleaned up?
Liboiron: Any math on that would be highly suspect for a couple of reasons. The main numerical problem that we would be trying to model is: What do you mean plastics are causing harm?
My specialty is animals that ingest plastics, and animals, specifically, that people eat. Your average animal will eat and poop out plastics just fine because your average animal is also eating things like fish, which have bones, and squid which have super hard squid beaks that you can cut yourself on. There are problems like entanglement, absolutely. Is there more entanglement from fishing gear than bycatch from fishing? That’s not known, and is hard to measure because no one is watching ghost fishing.
The question doesn’t become, is cleaning up worth it compared to turning off the tap? We know turning off the tap is better. Full stop.
If you want to clean up—and in some places you actually must clean up—there are better and worse ways to clean up. Shoreline clean up? Awesome. Those trash wheels in bays, putting things at the end of sewage outfalls and stormwater drains? Absolutely. Those are great ways to do cleanup. There are many places in the world where those things are essential, because if you have blocked sewer drains and you have a wet season, you’ve got climate change meeting plastic pollution, there’s a clusterfuck. So, yes, cleanup is absolutely essential in a lot of places.
Earther: I read a piece you wrote a couple of years ago and there was a really fascinating idea you had about how plastics exist in a framework of time outside of what we can understand.
Liboiron: Yes. Plastics exist in geological time.
Earther: What does that mean?
Liboiron: It’s opposed to species time. People talk about different eras in time—Paleolithic, Jurassic, etc. They’re talking about species time. Dinosaurs were some of the longest-lasting species around and they died out. It’s not because we’re doomed, right? That’s just how species roll. Plastics last longer than that. Plastics are longer than eras.
Earther: Yeah, that’s wild.
Liboiron: If you want to get down to the nitty gritty, that includes both polymers, or plastics themselves, but also some of the chemicals that are associated with them. Even if you incinerate plastics, and you end up with some plastic chemicals and slag, those two last longer than species. Even if you chop up the plastics or burn them. Or bury them or send worms after them. They will still last longer than species, just in a slightly different form.
Earther: I don’t think people really understand that.
Liboiron: Yeah, it’s almost like inventing plastics was kind of a bad idea.
But let’s say you’ve collected this plastic. What are you going to do with it? You can almost never recycle any marine plastics for a number of reasons, including that they’re not terribly recyclable. They get fucked up in the ocean, and they’re too diverse. So even if you get them into a landfill, great, now they’re there for, what, another 400 years to 1,000 years? Fine. And then that landfill will get covered with water with climate change, or just because that’s what happens to planets, and they’ll pop back up again and go back to the ocean. While you shuffle the plastics around, you’ve just deferred the problem.
That’s why turning off the tap is so important. If you go back to the mopping analogy, eventually the water will rise over the level of the bucket that you’re mopping and it’ll just go back in with all the other water.
Earther: Correct me if I’m wrong here, but it almost feels like we accidentally created another, like, compound on Earth. That’s hanging out for eternity.
Liboiron: There’s a group, I forget what it’s called. It’s like—the worldwide association of people who name eras. [Editor’s note: Liboiron is referring to the International Stratigraphic Commission, part of the International Union of Geological Sciences, which is responsible for naming geological periods.] They’re geologists, rock people, and they’re talking about the Anthropocene—there’s actually a scientific question for the Anthropocene. This new epoch, this new species era, is characterized by human activity. The big argument amongst the geologists is what [geologic] signal are we going to use to mark this era? The two contenders are plastics or nuclear fallout from atomic bombs.
Earther: Oh shit.
Liboiron: Those will last forever in the geological record.
Earther: That is so grim.
Liboiron: Yeah, it’s a fascinating discussion.
Earther: People who think that we can solve this problem of plastics in the ocean might find this conversation to be a big bummer and that the alternative is fatalism. What do you tell people who want to find solutions to this problem?
Liboiron: I’ve been saying turn off the tap the whole time. Turn off the tap, turn off the tap. That’s what we do. And we can name who is keeping the tap running. Coca-Cola. ExxonMobil. We have their phone numbers.
The constant and prolific growth of oil has come under threat because of climate change and renewable energy. These monoliths, they’re shifting those efforts into plastics. That’s the good news, actually, because it’s shifted before and it can shift again. We have the playbook and it’s the climate change playbook. It’s pretty much identical to the climate change playbook, even some of the same actors.
If you compare it to climate change, people sometimes say, “yeah, we should go grab carbon out of the air.” And we do a little bit of that. But under no circumstances does anyone think that that’s going to solve the climate change problem. It’s exactly the same as plastic.
Earther: What do you say to people who have concerns about plastics entering our food stream and entering marine life? Obviously it’s a big spectrum of what is bad about plastics versus what is just unstudied and what could be possibly fine, something we could live with.
Liboiron: There are two ways to think about the harms of animals eating plastics—and they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. One is moral or ethical, where you say, “that’s screwed up. That is wrong. That should never happen.” Yes. Totally agree that it’s fucked up. It doesn’t matter whether it harms the animal or not. That’s fucked up, 100%. The second way to think about it is in scientific terms. Harm, be it physically or ecologically or population-wise, demonstrated at those scales, by and large, ingesting plastics does not harm animals.
The example you can think of is a dog. Domestic dogs eat a ton of plastics because they’re eating the stuffing out a toy or eating whatever else they find. They eat plastics all the time. Yes, sometimes dogs have to go to the vet because they have a blockage and if they don’t deal with that, they will die. Is that most dogs? No. Is that a threat to the population of dogs? No. Is that fucked up for a few individual dogs? Absolutely.
Earther: So what is your biggest concern scientifically?
Liboiron: My biggest concern is the power of the petrochemical industry. Canada is about to end subsidies to oil. That is way more important in terms of impacting the scale of plastic pollution than any form of cleanup that’s happening.