6 Ways to Clean up the Oceans

Every year, approximately 11 million tonnes of plastic enter the oceans. This takes a massive toll on marine life and contributes to climate change.

We wonder, what’s the best way to clean up the oceans?

And is it even efficient?

The first answer is quite controversial with different schools of thought having different opinions.

Marine biologists are raising questions about the systems implemented by The Ocean Cleanup, because they are similar to trawler fishing. The main system has a large net attached to two massive ships that drag just below the ocean surface. Even though there are precautionary measures to avoid bycatch, marine life was still impacted on multiple occasions. 

On the flip side, there are a few systems that are doing wonders to improve ocean pollution.
One great example is Mr. Trash Wheel. It stops river plastic and trash from entering the ocean, which is a pollution reduction technique highly applauded by various scientific communities. 

The second answer is definitely NO!

To understand this, let’s take the example of an overflowing bathtub. You can’t clear out the area unless you turn off the tap; simply mopping it will not make a difference and might aggravate the issue. 

The same is the case with ocean plastic pollution. You can keep cleaning it but the efforts will be useless unless we stop the continuous inflow which is around a truckload every minute

In this post, we’ll share complete details on why we need to clean up our oceans, what will be the benefits, are current techniques efficient or not, what are the natural sources, and what should be done.

Let’s dive in!  

Why Should We Clean Up the Oceans?

The biggest pollution problem in the oceans is the massive ocean garbage patches. They are created by subtropical oceanic gyres, which are large systems of rotating ocean currents; trash gets sucked in and trapped within them. 

The biggest garbage patch in the world is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). Even though it only covers 0.5% of the world’s ocean surface but has over 50% of the plastic ocean pollution trapped in it. It has an area double the size of Texas. 

Image showing Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP)

Image via The Ocean Cleanup

Here’s why we need to stop this continuous addition of plastic into the oceans and remove what’s already in it:

Plastics are Persistent

Plastics take decades, and in some cases, centuries, to degrade. Studies place their decomposition time between 20 to 500 years depending on the type. 

The most concerning issue is that most of the discarded plastic items aren’t used for long - an average plastic bag is only used for 12 minutes. As a result, the plastic keeps piling up without decomposing. 

This constant dumping of plastic coupled with less than 1% of its weight loss in the oceans enunciates that we not only need to stop plastic production and usage, but we also need to somehow clean it as it isn’t going to magically disappear on its own.  

The More the Trash Stays in the Ocean, the More Lethal It Becomes

Plastic’s potential of harming the ocean and the environment multiplies with time as it breaks down from a single item into hundreds and thousands of microplastic particles. Currently, 8% of the GPGP’s plastic is microplastic, however, it’s increasing over time, and if we don’t take measures to clean it now, it might increase by a factor of 10.  

In addition to their potential growth over time, microplastics are a nightmare to clean. Here’s why:

  • They have a diameter of less than 5 mm.
  • Plastic particles lose buoyancy as they go down in size. As a result, they are sinking into the deep ocean. Currently, only 10% has sunk below the GPGP, but if immediate, creative actions aren’t taken, the percentage might increase. 

Images shows a graph of The cross-section of the GPGP on a logarithmic scale. The left is Hawaii, and the right is the North American West Coast. Image via The Ocean Cleanup

The cross-section of the GPGP on a logarithmic scale. The left is Hawaii, and the right is the North American West Coast. Image via The Ocean Cleanup

Ocean Pollution Kills Marine Life

Ocean pollution is highly detrimental to marine life. Every year more than 100,000 marine mammals and a million seabirds become the victim of marine plastic pollution.

Here’s how ocean pollution kills marine life:

  • Animals and birds get entangled in plastic waste, which either directly strangles them or hinders their ability to move, feed, or swim. 
  • Marine species ingest plastic thinking its food, which poisons and kills them. Some marine birds accidentally feed them to their young. 
  • Untreated waste and industrial water contaminate the oceans and kill the marine animals’ habitats. As a result, they are forced to migrate into areas that aren’t suitable for them. 

Marine Plastic Pollution Causes Climate Change

Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) is one of the most common types of plastics and is generally used to manufacture plastic bags, food containers, tubing, and plastic bottles. Due to its usability and abundance, it’s also one of the most commonly found plastic waste in landfills and the oceans. 

LDPE releases methane and ethylene, two major greenhouse gases when it breaks down into microplastics through exposure to the sun, which is one of the most common forms of plastic degradation in the oceans.
If it’s left in the ocean, it’ll keep degrading, emitting GHGs, and causing climate change. 

What are the Benefits of Ocean Clean Up?

Following are the 5 main benefits of cleaning up the oceans:

Protects Marine Biodiversity

Remember the sad story of the Indonesian sperm whale who was found dead on the beach with over 1,000 pieces of plastic in it?!

Well, there will be slim chances of something like this happening again if we clean up the oceans. 

Furthermore, we’ll be saving young fish from getting addicted to plastic, a common occurrence found by Swedish researchers. They crave plastic just as young teens crave fast food! 

Cleaner Beaches

With polluted oceans, this isn’t possible, because 15% of the 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic waste in the oceans is estimated to end up on the beaches

Reduces GHG Emissions

The ocean can be our saviour against climate change, as they absorb carbon and release oxygen. However, this process is hindered when their surface is obscured due to eutrophication or plastic pollution. Cleaning the oceans allows more carbon absorption, which helps with climate change. In addition to this, cleaning the oceans will allow the blue carbon ecosystems to thrive.

Economic Benefits

Ocean pollution has a significant negative impact on the economics of numerous industries, with the main ones being tourism, fishing, and shipping.

In the Asia-Pacific alone, we are losing $1.3 billion due to ocean plastic. Similarly, a University of Cambridge study found that only 30% of the planet’s land and ocean protection efforts have a benefit-to-cost ratio of 5 to 1

Restricts Bioaccumulation of Microplastics

Do you know that one out of three fish caught for human consumption has microplastics in it?

Given that fishing activities don’t include verification of microplastic presence in their catch, it’s highly likely that you’ve consumed some of these fish. Cleaning up the oceans eliminates this issue as there won’t be any plastics for fish to consume, resulting in a clean catch. 

Furthermore, since most of the marine species travel far and wide in oceans, cleaning one part of it has a positive impact on the people living in a completely different location. 

Is Technological Ocean Clean-up Doing More Harm Than Help?

Given the current situation of our oceans, numerous start-ups are working on cleaning them. One of the big names in this regard is The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit foundation started by an 18-year-old, Boyan Slat, in Delft, Netherlands

Even though the ocean cleaning organizations are coming up with numerous technologies to clean out the trash, specifically the GPGP, there is a massive debate on their efforts helpfulness; a large section of the marine biology community believes that these attempts are doing more harm than help. Here’s why:

Garbage Patches Aren’t Really Patches, They’re More of a Soup!

The Ocean Cleanup and other similar organizations claim to clean the garbage patches, specifically the GPGP. However, cleaning them through the technologies employed by these NGOs or start-ups is often inefficient because these patches aren’t patches, or the mountains of trash popularised on TV. They are more of a soup of plastic in which the majority of trash is broken-down pieces comparable to peas or pepper flakes in size.  

Only 1% of the plastic dumped in the oceans reaches the garbage patches (the sorcery on where the other 99% goes is yet to be fully discovered!), so even if we clean them out, there isn’t much of a difference. 

Ocean Cleanup Operations Might Harm the Marine Life

If we look at the technologies and techniques employed by different organizations to clean up the oceans, we notice that most of them resemble fishing techniques. For instance, The Ocean Cleanup’s current technique involves dragging a shallow net between two large ships, a method identical to trawl fishing, which kills marine life as bycatch – accidental catching.

Even though the company claims that the method is opposite of that of fishing and allows marine life to pass underneath the nets or escape through various escape hatches, they accept that they’ve caught a small number of marine animals during the process

What Cleans Ocean Naturally?

In 2016, Japanese scientists discovered Ideonella sakaiensis, a bacterium capable of cleaning the ocean naturally, because they consume polyethylene terephthalate (PET). They discovered it while collecting plastic bottles outside a recycling facility. 

The Ideonella sakaiensis uses two digestive enzymes termed hydrolyzing PET or PETase to break down long PET molecular chains into smaller ones. These monomers are terephthalic acid or ethylene glycol. They are further broken down into smaller chunks and used as carbon and energy source by the Ideonella sakaiensis for growth. 

Image shows a 3D illustration of the breaking-down procedure of PET by Ideonella sakaiensis | Image via Live Science

3D illustration of the breaking-down procedure of PET by Ideonella sakaiensis | Image via Live Science

After the ground-breaking discovery of Ideonella sakaiensis, scientists have started researching genetic modification to improve its efficiency. In addition to this, many studies are being carried out to modify other bacteria that have high enzyme production capability, such as E-coli, to produce PETase and break down the plastic at a higher rate. 

However, there’s a long way ahead, because PETase is only capable of decomposing PET, which is only one of the 7 plastic types out there. 

How Can We Clean Up the Ocean?

As we discussed earlier, scooping plastic out of the ocean using massive nets or other techniques and technologies is neither efficient nor beneficial. Therefore, we need to be more creative in cleaning up the oceans. Following are a few ways in which we can tap the flow of pollution in the oceans and eventually clean them:

Stop the Flow of Plastic from Land and Rivers

80% of the plastic waste entering the oceans makes its way through rivers and coastlines, therefore, the key to cleaning up the oceans is to find a way to stop this passage. 

CleanHub is directly collecting plastic from households, businesses, and the environment in coastal regions to stop it from entering the oceans. Here’s what we do in a nutshell:

  • We collect plastic, primarily in South (East) Asia, before it enters the oceans. The collection process usually involves door-to-door collection to intercept the waste as close to the source as possible. All the steps along the logistic chain are tracked and verified via our technology: the CleanHub App
  • We sort the plastic into recyclable and non-recyclable categories by hand. 
  • The recyclable plastic is sent to recycling facilities, the non-recyclable plastic is used to recover energy. This is done via incineration in cement plants, which reduces the carbon emissions from the cement production process by up to 20%.
  • You can check our company’s positive environmental impact from our live dashboard.

Following are a few other ways in which different countries around the world are stopping waste before it can enter the oceans: 

  • In Kenya, Chemolex Company and Smart Villages are stopping plastic from entering the ocean from the Athi River by placing fences to divert the waste to conveyor belts
  • The TerraCycle Global Foundation has placed two clean-up systems in the Lat Phrao Canal to trap plastic and other waste. The systems have two outstretched booms with nets attached that trap trash floating just below the water surface. 
  • The Ocean Conservancy is trying to make the Song Hong River in Vietnam plastic-free by using locally designed and sourced cleanup tools made with two booms and a mesh

Clean the Beaches

Cleaning the beaches is way easier than cleaning the ocean. You neither need any fancy technology nor a substantial investment. All you have to do is gather volunteers from the local community and have a beach clean-up day once every few days. 

Beach clean-ups not only stop the trash dumped onto the beaches from entering the oceans, but it also helps in removing 15% of the ocean plastic pollution. This is because out of all the waste dumped in the oceans, 15% of it lands back on our beaches. 

Although beach clean-ups alone won't solve the issue, they are a great tool to raise awareness about the magnitude of ocean pollution and educate people through action.

Don’t Let Agricultural Runoff Enter the Oceans

The best way to stop agricultural runoff from entering the oceans is by eliminating the problem at its root, creating awareness amongst farmers, and supporting them in reducing nutrient runoff. Here’s what farmers can do to reduce this issue:

  • Don’t let the livestock spend a lot of time along the water edges.
  • Have grass, native buffers, native trees, or shrubs barrier between tilled lands and water bodies. 
  • Fill the tilled fields with stubble during winter. 
  • Don’t leave the manure piles open and place grass or a native buffer barrier between them and the water bodies. 
  • Line the manure lagoons.
  • Only use manure and other fertilizer sources when the crops can fully utilize them. Furthermore, only apply the necessary amount. 

Create Incentives to Eliminate Plastic Use 

Financial incentives to companies and the general public have the potential to significantly reduce plastic waste and increase recycling. This can be achieved in numerous ways with the main one being the following:

  • Investors taking more interest in companies making efforts to reduce their plastic usage.
  • Companies offering incentives or money-back to customers willing to switch from plastic to other materials or return the packaging for recycling. 
  • Governments offering tax cuts for companies opting for plastic-free business practices.

A common example in this regard with respect to consumer behavior is the deposit refund scheme (DRS), which involves refunding a small initially charged tax back to the consumer on returning the packaging for recycling. One such scheme in South Australia resulted in a three-fold decrease in the beverage containers trashed on the beach. 

DRS systems are legally operated throughout Europe as well, with the main countries being Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Lithuania.

Develop Plastic Consumption and Waste Management Laws and Standards 

The ultimate solution to cleaning up the oceans is to reduce plastic consumption and waste. Even though awareness plays a significant part, introducing laws and standards is the correct way forward, as it forces people and companies to take responsibility for and curb their plastic usage. 

There have been many recent examples in this regard that are proving to be beneficial. For instance, many cities in the US, including New York and Chicago, have either banned plastic bags or taxed them. Similarly, the EU took steps to eliminate new plastic usage by banning all forms of single-use plastics. 

Another great incentive in this regard is the start of working on the United Nations global treaty to eliminate plastic waste

Similarly, many countries throughout the world are enforcing Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). This strategy, which is also termed Product Stewardship, is end-of-life product management’s shared responsibility on all the producers and other parties, except consumers, involved in the product chain. Its main purpose is to increase recycling to reduce waste. EPR is widely implemented in Europe. 

Foster Local Entrepreneurship

Simple tech tools are highly effective in restricting plastic from entering the oceans from land and rivers. By empowering local entrepreneurs and appreciating volunteers, plastic pollution can be handled before it becomes a part of the ocean. 

Image shows Mr. Trash Wheel | Image via Vox

Mr. Trash Wheel | Image via Vox

An excellent example in this regard is the Mr. Trash Wheel or the Inner Harbor Water Wheel. You can find it near the Jones Falls River, where it catches trash trying to enter Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. This idea sparked in John Kellett’s mind while walking past Pier 6 on his way to work, and he developed this simple yet effective device. 

The Sustainable Solution for Waste

Waste collection in locations without proper waste management in place can and should be managed more efficiently, with better working conditions for waste collectors and with the best possible benefits for the environment. We believe that the most efficient and financially sustainable way to solve plastic pollution is to build up a global network of waste collection infrastructures in high-impact locations to facilitate the collection and safe processing of non-recyclable plastic. Starting in South (East) Asia which is the gateway for more than 80% of all plastic that enters our oceans. 

Brands that want to take immediate action, can invest through us so we can stop plastic from entering the Oceans. This is the first step towards our goal. A world free from plastic pollution.

Ready to learn more? See how your brand can increase customer engagement, protect the oceans, make an environmental impact and become plastic neutral, download our playbook.Download playbook