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Why, oh why, do so many people embrace the Pacific Garbage Cleanup nonsense? (I have a theory).

This post is by Phil, not Andrew.

Over the couple of months I have seen quite a few people celebrating the long-awaited launch of a big device that will remove plastic garbage from the Pacific ocean. I find this frustrating because this project makes no sense even if the device works as intended: at best it will turn out to be a good piece of technology that is deployed in a stupid location where it will cost a lot of money to maintain while removing much less plastic than it could otherwise.

Every now and then I hear similar enthusiasm being expressed for devices that will remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere…just build these things all over the place and you can solve or at least reduce the problem of excessive atmospheric carbon dioxide. As with the ocean cleanup, if you have such a technology you’d be a fool to deploy it this way.

As many readers of this blog will have already recognized, if you are trying to remove plastic from the ocean, or to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the place to do it is where the concentration is highest.  If you have a device that can separate plastic from water, put it in or near the outflow of a river that is bringing the plastic into the ocean; don’t wait until the garbage-filled water has been diluted by a factor of many thousand. The device can only remove plastic from the water that it interacts with, so it can only process a certain volume of water per day; much better if that water has a high concentration of the plastic you are trying to remove. Similarly, if you have a technology that can separate carbon dioxide from other gases, you should put it in or near smokestacks from power plants and cement plants…that is, places where the concentration is much higher than you find if you wait for the gases to be fully mixed into the rest of the atmosphere.

The situation with the Pacific Garbage Patch cleanup is especially bad because, in addition to the (very large) inefficiency that is due to putting the devices in places with unnecessarily low concentrations of floating plastic, there are farther inefficiences associated with putting the devices far, far out at sea, where they are more costly to maintain than if they were closer to land.

All of the above seems pretty obvious, and I daresay it is pretty obvious to most readers of this blog. Why, then, are so many people excited about the idea of putting a bunch of devices way out in the Pacific, or sprinkling carbon dioxide removal devices all around the globe? I don’t know but I have a theory: I think people make a cognitive error, or perhaps experience a cognitive illusion, in which they don’t count the input stream as part of the system in a logical way. I had some interesting and somewhat perplexing conversations with friends who are enthusiastic about the carbon dioxide removal idea, and I think that’s a nice clean example of the cognitive error that I’m talking about so I’ll focus on that one.

I’ve discussed the carbon dioxide removal approach with several friends at various times, and said that if there is a good technology for separating carbon dioxide from other gases it should be used at major carbon dioxide sources, not in the general atmosphere. All of them express some variation of this sentiment: We need to stop emitting carbon dioxide, but we also need to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere because carbon dioxide concentrations are already too high. Putting the devices in places where they remove carbon dioxide from ‘the atmosphere’ seems like it is actually solving the problem, whereas decreasing the amount of carbon dioxide that is emitted is merely a way of stopping things from getting worse.

But of course, taking N tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and taking N tons of carbon dioxide out of a stream of combustion gases that is entering the atmosphere have the same effect on atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. And if, by putting your device at the smokestack, you can remove 3N tons in the same time and for the same cost, you are much better off putting the device in the smokestack. But somehow this doesn’t appeal to people because it doesn’t “reduce the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere.” It’s almost like they would prefer to add 3N tons to the atmosphere and then remove N tons, than to add zero tons in the first place; after all, in the former case you are removing N tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and in the latter you aren’t removing anything! They love the idea of removing the pollutant; decreasing the rate at which it is added just doesn’t seem the same somehow, even though it is.

I think this error, or something close to it, clouds people’s thinking about ocean plastics too.

The situation is more complicated with ocean plastics: 97% of plastic that enters the ocean does not end up in the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” so if you want to remove plastic specifically from the ‘patch’ then maybe you do want to put your device there. But I’ve talked to people about this and they seem to agree that they do want to decrease the amount of plastics in the oceans in general, not just in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But still, they seem to think that a device that removes plastic from the Pacific Ocean is needed, and they’re much more excited about that than about preventing plastic from entering the Pacific Ocean. One of my friends said “we need to do both.” Well, no: if it’s more effective to just do one of them, then that’s what we should do.

The Ocean Cleanup project is probably going to collect many tons of garbage from the Pacific Ocean (at great expense) and I’m sure some people will declare it a success…and that’s a crying shame because they could do much, much better for a lot less money.

This post is by Phil, not Andrew.


  1. if people want to recover CO2 from stream of combustion gases, an even better way is to burn coal with pure oxygen and get very high concentration. Use of oxygen plants is ancient and proven technology (75+ years) in copper smelting, and is used to recover strong SO2 streams for sulphuric acid. It has important advantage of reducing gas stream to 20% of prior level and thereby enabling modern smelters to be much smaller than a century ago.

    • Terry says:

      Hi Steve.

      Have followed your work for years.

      I’ve told Andrew he should look at your stuff since you have been doing for years what this blog focuses on. The replication crisis was not a surprise to me primarily because of what I learned from you and Ross.

      You should write up, in compact form, the unraveling of the Marcott paper. It is a riveting example of results-oriented empirical work and subsequent obfuscation in the face of criticism. Andrew often criticizes how obstinate authors are about admitting to any flaws in their work.

  2. That’s really strange behavior, because it appears contrary to both loss aversion and omission/commission bias. Loss aversion describes the tendency to dislike losing a good (e.g. air quality) more than we like gaining the same good. The opposite should hold for bad things (e.g. pollution). Omission/commission bias describes our tendency to judge more harshly the bad things caused by actions vs. those caused by inactions. Both biases should make us prefer (and judge more favorably) not polluting in the first place, rather than polluting (a commission and a loss), followed by cleaning up (a counterbalancing commission). If Phil’s theory is valid, then there must be another heuristic at play, powerful enough to overcome loss aversion and omission/commission biases. Or the forces of loss aversion and omission/commission bias must be suspended somehow in this case.

    • Anoneuoid says:

      That’s really strange behavior, because it appears contrary to both loss aversion and omission/commission bias.

      My knowledge of these concepts is very limited, but I would assume both were concluded from observing a tendency for people to favor one thing over the other rather than being a hard rule. Just with general knowledge of psych/social research, I would also doubt the tendency is stronger than 2:1 in favor of one or the other behavior.

      So, I wouldn’t call any deviations “really strange”. But maybe these effects are much stronger than I’m aware of.

  3. I think the phenomenon is as you say a cognitive error and that it is most like “separate mental accounts” that people have been described as keeping by the behavioral economist. See:

  4. Ross says:

    Adherents of the Broken Windows theory of economics? IE They found a broken window, and now it must be fixed to complete the virtuous chain?

    Or, maybe the Broken Windows theory of neighborhood policing? Namely, if we fix this unsightly-but-not-overly-egregious things, then things won’t get worse?

  5. Dan S says:

    Related but distinct: people don’t care about plastic in oceans per se — they care about how awful it feels in their head when they think about the Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s horrifying. It makes you want to cry. If you asked people if they’d rather take N units of plastic out of oceans generally, or the same N units but all from the PGP, I suspect people would choose the latter, even if they are equivalent.

    So your idea is more effective at cleaning oceans, but less effective at making people feel better when they imagine the PGP.

    This sounds similar to the cognitive bias you describe, but I think it’s distinct, because even if you show them numbers and teach them to fix their cognitive bias, I think your solution still won’t feel as good to them.

    • Beyond how good it feels, there’s also the legitimate issue of pollution remaining even if the source is quenched. It’s relatively easy to filter out the source, as Phil points out. The hard engineering problem is cleaning up the diluted end product. From the perspective of attacking the hard problem with research this may be a good place to spend effort.

      Suppose for example a breakthrough is made in fusion so that a commercially viable power plant is made and it rapidly eliminated CO2 production. How do we get the diluted CO2 already released out of the air? Spending time in this research project can make sense even if it’s not immediately the most pressing issue.

  6. upmanu lall says:

    I agree with Phil, and routinely make the same comment re CO2 in my Better Planet by Design class. Klaus Lackner, one of the pioneers of “Carbon /CO2 capture”, and a former colleague is a brilliant physicist. His original articulation was indeed to design systems that would capture CO2 at the smokestack as a concentrated source. Eventually, he moved to capture from the air — rather curious. As I understand, two arguments are offered:
    1. A substantial fraction of the emissions is from sources that are not fixed = transportation by cars etc, and the challenge with capturing CO2 from these mobile sources is that the typical ideas people were thinking of would require both a chemical exchanger on the vehicle and a way to store the resulting product (e.g., CaCO3) on the car. The weight of these would soon overwhelm the car making it use even more fuel etc. One can debate the details of this argument but it is roughly the story that is put up

    2. It could be that one needs negative emissions to bring CO2 down to a dangerous level, and in this case you need to eliminate emission sources and also suck it out from the atmosphere. This is what Lackner then shifts to, and calls it “Dial up your desired CO2 to get the climate you want”. Frankly, given where we are 20 years later in terms of emissions, and Phil’s clear argument you could debate that a) one could have focused on reducing emissions from smoke stacks all this time and reducing the potential problem (20 years of increasing emissions with a half life of 50-200 years in the atmosphere is no laughing matter), rather than jumping out to what one may need to do if all mitigation efforts fail, or that we are not going to successfully mitigate emissions, and so in 30-50 years we better be prepared to have a technology ready that could suck it down. I’ll let you ponder these arguments.

    Over the last 50 years of the environmental movement, we also learned that reducing emissions of pollutants was invariably much more effective than end of pipe removal which was much more effective than restoring the environment after the pollutants are in it — this is completely in line with Phil’s argument. On the CO2 front renewable electricity has rapidly emerged as the emission reduction solution, and now most contracts for new projects are being done at a delivered price that is well below that from fossil fuel sources — but have a large existing pipeline of fossil emissions so the rate of growth of the problem has been addressed, but not the problem. Subsidies have played a modest role in this story, and talk of C taxes and C capture and sequestration continues, without much to show for it in terms of real world outcomes. Let’s revisit this in another 20 years :)

    Plastics — extend this argument to most synthetic products that find widespread use, and the upcoming nanotechnologies. Every innovation has an equal and opposite return? Perhaps not, but Phil’s basic point about how humans see this bears further examination.

    I have yet to meet a politician who agreed that reducing consumption and increasing efficiency of use was going to be their signature initiative. They usually look for ways to increase the supply first, and ask for “technological innovation” for increasing water, energy or food supplies with jobs growth, of course. The aftermath is what we debate. In a way it is the same syndrome.

  7. John says:

    I absolutely agree that the most effective solution would be to go to the points with the most concentration of pollution and stop the flow there. Once that is accomplished, then measures could be taken to eliminate other patches of garbage, as the highest concentration would shift from the mouths of waterways to the ocean.

    However, this solution ignores a lot of troubles and realities that would plague an organization that seeks to clean the ocean with limited resources. The problem shifts from a primarily technological one (clean X amount of water without harming wildlife) to a primarily legislative one (get governmental permission from the highest polluters of the world to install a foreign device at the connection between land and sea).

    Perhaps this is my shortsighted opinion, but it seems to me that the funds, lobbying, legislative, and international resources necessary to successfully sway governments in favor of such a river device is massive compared to the resources needed to park a few ships at port while essentially drifting some buoys around the Pacific.

    Furthermore, parking devices at the mouths of rivers could be the organization’s eventual goal. Cleaning the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” could be a publicity and funding opportunity for the organization: the area is one of the most well known garbage areas in the world and has been the subject of repeated public documentaries, odd articles, and environmental study. Instead of expending a significant amount of resources attempting to do what could be impossible right now, they could be attempting to gain enough PR, donations, and popular goodwill by cleaning up something the populace is relatively well-educated about. After this the Ocean Cleanup project could launch new environmental cleaning opportunities and potentially bypass red tape because they have established a proof of concept.

    I agree with the idea that, in terms of actually cleaning things, the Ocean Cleanup project has an idea that won’t do too much. But, as a strategic lever to grow a non-profit and potentially acquire more resources for more effective projects, this could also be a massive success for the organization and lead the way towards more effective cleanups.

    • Phil says:

      You don’t have to put the devices literally in the mouth of a river, and there might be many good reasons not to (e.g. interference with shipping and with marine life; aesthetics). If you can put the device way out in the ocean, you can put it somewhere closer to land where the concentrations are higher, that’s the main point.

      You may be right, though, that it is easier to sell the idea of “cleaning up the Pacific” than “cleaning up the sea off Indonesia” or whatever…even if the latter does the former too, and does it better. I dunno, that’s more of a marketing question, not a technical one.

      But whatever the merits of the approach, what I’m trying to figure out is why my friends (and others) are enthusiastic about it. It certainly does not appear to be because they think it’s a savvy marketing approach or PR approach; they really do think it’s _effective_. That’s what I think needs an explanation, and what I’m trying to explain.

  8. Jonathan says:

    Do something. Don’t just stand there.

    It’s a constant argument. One version: we spend tons of money on lots of programs that produce no measurable results beyond the anecdotal or effects that fade away, and that takes away from spending on other things that we might actually be able to affect. Another version, maybe even worse: we do something visible and that bleeds off the pressure for doing something that might actually matter. A visible demonstration is often a substitute for meaningful action. This is especially true in politics: your side makes a visible demonstration and that is presented by you – in your mind, to others, in your media sources – as meaningful. When the other side does something, it’s never meaningful. If you get bogged down in human illogic, you never get anywhere.

  9. Terry says:

    There is another aspect of carbon-dioxide removal that you don’t see discussed much, the question of WHEN to remove it.

    I have been told by reputable climate scientists that the half-life of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 5 years, so anything you do today will have an impact for only a decade or so. If your goal is to reduce CO2 a hundred years from now, then removing it now is a waste of time, and you should wait a few decades to do it. If you are thinking of building something now, you have to ask how much you care about CO2 levels in the near future. I hear that it is an open question whether higher CO2 levels today are a good thing or a bad thing, so it is not clear what the point of CO2 removal today is.

    • Thanks for these thoughts. I did a little googling and came up with a bunch of variation on the estimate of the half life of CO2, but they were all in range of say 5 to 30 years. I suspect it’s probably closer to middle of that range than 5, but still a good point because it’s not hundreds. Of course, where does that CO2 go? It goes into plankton and then sea life, as well as trees and other long lived plants. Reducing emissions and also reducing pressure on large marine life and forests could go a long way it seems.

    • Phil says:

      The residence time of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a more complicated question than it seems at first: there are multiple sinks that absorb carbon dioxide at different rates, and they do not produce a single exponential decay. Some things happen relatively quickly, like absorption of airborne carbon dioxide into ocean water; but once dynamic equilibrium is attained there, most processes are very slow: it takes a looooong time to build up new coal beds and so on!

      Here is an article from Yale Climate Connections. It says “Using a combination of various methods, researchers have estimated that about 50 percent of the net anthropogenic pulse would be absorbed in the first 50 years, and about 70 percent in the first 100 years. Absorption by sinks slows dramatically after that, with an additional 10 percent or so being removed after 300 years and the remaining 20 percent lasting tens if not hundreds of thousands of years before being removed.”

      • If we are concerned mainly about industrial output, the question to ask is not so much the residence time but the decay rate to pre-industrial levels if all CO2 production were halted. This is more or less a perturbation analysis around a previous equilibrium state.

        So let’s say we’ve doubled CO2 in the atmosphere since say 1700 (not true, we’ve somewhat less than doubled according to a quick google), how long if we turned off the CO2 sources til we got back to the levels in 1700? It sounds basically like your Yale source suggests around 100 years for 70 percent of that doubling to be eliminated… which suggests you might model the excess away from an earlier equilibrium as 2^-(t/50) with t in years. or at least asymptotically for small t (small relative to the time it takes to build coal beds), a half-life around 50 years.

        Could that be improved by engineering? Probably, in the sense that we could do things like intentionally plant fast growing trees in certain areas and transition to using them in building projects, or dramatically change our fisheries processes and improve the populations of large marine life (who sequester carbon for their lifetime, and then fall to the ocean floor). Or whatever, to actually take advantage of certain fast processes.

        Of course that requires concerted effort. Climate is a pretty complicated “tragedy of the commons” kind of system without economic feedbacks.

      • Eli Rabett says:

        This is the usual confusion between the residence time, the time that a single molecule of co2 remains in the atmosphere, and the adjustment time, the time it takes for a rise in co2 concentration to return to the initial value.

        The reason these times differ by orders of magnitude is that there is a balance between co2 moving out and into the oceans, the biosphere and the atmosphere.

        The residence time is 5 to 10 years. The full adjustment time is thousands of years ending when the excess CO2 is incorporated into carbonate rocks. As a practical matter most of the concentration pulse is absorbed in a few hundred years when the excess CO2 is diffused into the deep ocean below the thermocline.

    • Dan Riley says:

      5 years is the residence time for an individual CO2 molecule before it trades places with an identical CO2 molecule in another carbon cycle reservoir. Exchanging one CO2 molecule for an identical one doesn’t reduce the atmospheric concentration, so it isn’t relevant for CO2 mitigation.

      What does matter for CO2 mitigation is the lifetime of a bulk change–if we add 1 ppm CO2 to the atmosphere, how long does it take to get back to the previous level? While the residence time depends on the gross exchange rate, the lifetime of a bulk change depends on the difference between the input and output rates. Since the carbon cycle is near equilibrium, the natural input and output rates are closely matched, and so the bulk change lifetime is much longer than the residence time for an individual molecule. What we do now to lower the bulk concentration will have an effect 50 years from now, and a 100 years from now, and by most estimates a 1000 years from now.

  10. Terry says:

    Good post.

    Since you seem to know what you are talking about, can you tell us if there is anything to the Pacific garbage concern? I have heard that the concentration of actual plastic garbage is tiny. People have little conception of how huge the Pacific is and the stories I’ve seen about the garbage patch seem pretty ignorant.

    I have also heard that the plastic is actually broken down by wave action and bacteria. People have a conception that plastic is forever, but its not, so is it ever going to build up to a significant point, and if so, when will it build up to that point?

    • My impression is that it’s a significant issue for sea life. Stuff eats the plastic, can’t really digest it, it accumulates in their gut and then they starve to death. That sort of thing. I don’t really have numbers on how important this affect is though. One certainly suspects that if you cut the massive commercial fishing industry activity by 10% it’d be a better outcome for sea life than putting plastic cleanup barges out there. Similarly if you changed fishing practices to reduce bycatch and soforth it’d be way better.

    • Phil says:

      I am not an expert on this; I do know what I’m talking about more than most people, but only because I read more widely and pay attention to this issue, not because I work in this area. In this post and in this comment I’m just speaking to things I am sure about. And I probably should have mentioned in the post, I am not (at all) the only person who has pointed out that the middle of the Pacific is not the best place to pick up trash, and that removal at the source is more efficient. If you search for [pacific garbage project criticism] or similar you will find that many people — including ocean cleanup experts — make the same points. My ‘contribution’, if it is one, is to propose a model for why so many people get excited about removing trash from entering the Pacific Garbage Patch but not about stopping it from getting there in the first place.

      You are definitely right that coverage in the press has given people an exaggerated view of the concentration of plastic. I’ve seen many articles about the issue that show giant floating islands of plastic trash. To pick one out of many: this article has a photo of a concentrated bunch of trash, but note from the photo that it is very near land. If it were like this out in the middle of the ocean the much-publicized ocean cleanup project might make sense!

      The concentration of near-surface plastic in the Pacific Garbage Patch varies spatially from a high of around 100 kg per square kilometer to less than 10 kg per square kilometer. That’s 10^5 grams per 10^9 square meters, or 0.0001 grams per square meter. Wikipedia says “Despite the common public image of islands of floating rubbish, its low density (4 particles per cubic meter) prevents detection by satellite imagery, or even by casual boaters or divers in the area. It consists primarily of an increase in suspended, often microscopic, particles in the upper water column.”

      The Ocean Cleanup Project isn’t going for the little bits of plastic; their machine only captures pieces bigger than about 1 cm on a side. By count, most particles are much much smaller than that; but most of the mass is in particles of the size targeted by the project. The project notes that most of the larger plastic would eventually break up into smaller bits, so if they are successful they will also be reducing the number of smaller pieces over time. I hadn’t really thought about it but this argument that you should focus on the source is similar to the argument I make in my post.

      I don’t think anyone knows the effects of tiny plastics on sea life. It’s generally assumed that the effect is somewhat negative — it’s hard to see how it could be good — but I haven’t seen claims that the effects are terrible, either.

      Larger plastic pieces definitely cause problems, though. To give just one famous example, albatross parents mistake floating plastic for food and fly long distances to deliver it to their young. This piece says there’s no scientific proof that a stomach full of plastic actually hurts the young albatross but that is a much more cautious statement than necessary: this represents a big waste of energy for the parents and pretty much has to hurt the young in some way.

      Another big problem is ghost nets, which are fishing nets that float around at or near the surface (held up by buoys), snagging sea life until they become so weighted down that they sink. Sometimes the ‘catch’ decays and/or is eaten by bottom-dwellers until the net becomes buoyant again.

      Famously, plastic bags look like jellyfish to sea turtles. A turtle eats a bag, which then blocks its stomach or intestines from absorbing nutrients. This is a major cause of sea turtle mortality.

      Putting it all together, there is no question that floating plastic trash in the middle of the ocean has negative ecological impacts, but the magnitude isn’t precisely known and may not be as big as most people think.

      Actually I suspect (though I don’t know for sure) that plastic on or near shore — on coral reefs, for example — would be much worse, pound for pound, than plastic floating in the sea. But I could be wrong. Certainly if you are an albatross or a whale it’s the deep-ocean plastic that is a problem.

      • Carolyn says:

        Good post. Would it be possible to contact you directly to discuss? (I’m a journalist working on a story on just this topic.)
        If so, I’ve included my work email in registering to leave this response. Thanks!

  11. Terry says:

    Perhaps a simple example would help to give an idea of the magnitude of the Pacific garbage patch problem. If we filled an olympic-sized swimming pool with water from the garbage patch, how much plastic, by weight would there be in it?

    • A lot of this plastic is floating so it’s within the first inch of the surface. So concentration of plastic per unit volume is not the right analysis I think. If you put a pump out there and skimmed the top 1 inch of the ocean and used that water stream to put it into your pool, that’d be a very different quantity of plastic compared to if you picked up your pool and used it to scoop up one big ladle full of water.

      However I did go to a talk once that said for the most part the plastic is invisible and in the form of very small “chips”, which animals then skim off the surface along with krill they’re feeding on…

      I think the major reason to be concerned about plastic is its effect on wildlife. so a better question is something like how much suffering and death is caused by animals ingesting plastic in the pacific garbage patch, and since I’m all about the use of dimensionless ratios, let’s calculate it as a ratio relative to the suffering and death caused by commercial fishing.

  12. MC says:

    This seems like a classic prevention versus treatment issue. Prevention is the long-term approach and costs more money up front, but saves a lot in the end. Treatment is more short-term, trying to fix the problem we have now, but ignoring the causes of that problem. We really should be doing both in tandem, but only one approach (prevention) will actually solve the underlying problem.

    Generally, it seems that people push for only treatment when they have decided that prevention is impossible. In this case, perhaps individuals are looking for a treatment solution, because society has decided that we can’t or won’t impose the prevention strategy on individuals or companies. If we decide it is impossible to get people to use fewer plastic bags or to make companies install the carbon dioxide device, then we move to only downstream approaches, cleaning up the mess after it is already made.

  13. Lord says:

    Considering the largest portion of this is fishing nets, research into failure modes and increased durability would seem more effective than either.

    • Thanatos Savehn says:

      For several years now I’ve trudged along the beaches with my sons in Scouts on beach trash pick up outings. Each time, without fail, the biggest haul, pound for pound, has been fishing nets. We find a few plastic bottles (I don’t recall any straws) but there’s always at least one giant pile of fishing net. And that net, unless there are two to be found, wins the award for “Most Waste Removed”.

      Alas, as usual, we wind up looking for our keys under the nearest street light.

  14. harryq says:

    I’ll begin by admitting that I know very little about the actual problem aside from watching Vice News (where they’ve had pieces covering the projects discussed here).

    With that said, I suppose my argument in defense of their logic might be best illustrated by the following example: I am capable of separating plastics from paper in my own recycling, and thus, in theory, I could go around the neighborhood and sort *everyone’s* recycling, but this is either impossible or simply infeasible (e.g., time, expense). If, however, I (or rather, a machine) could sort the neighborhood’s recycling all at once, this would seemingly be much more efficient.

    I’m sure there are numerous issues with this argument, but the basic idea (i.e., concentrating efforts downstream) seems applicable. It also doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also address the issue at the individual-level, whether that be sorting our own recycling (using my example above) or reducing pollution at the source (using the examples from the post).

    • Phil says:

      harryq, I don’t understand how the situation you describe is at all analogous. With plastic in the ocean, you can find high concentrations near the major sources and if you go way out in the Pacific you find much lower concentrations; that’s sort of key to the whole issue. I don’t see how your analogy maps onto that.

  15. Dzhaughn says:

    Why do you believe it to be so expensive? It’s an honest question.

    • Phil says:

      The Ocean Cleanup people say they expect to spend about $20 million this year (that’s on top of the $10 million or so they spent in the past two years working on their first machine), which is now being deployed. They estimate about $400 million to clean up…uh…I’ve forgotten the numbers, but I think it’s 70% of the large plastic currently in the patch. Nobody else in the general field of ocean cleanup thinks they can attain that. But even if they can, they could do better if they put the machines elsewhere..

      • Dzhaughn says:

        Hmm is $400M big or small? That is one year of education at Columbia. (For all 6000 students, including housing etc..)

        And its about 5 days of profit at Apple. A tenth of what Microsoft paid for Nokia or aQuantive. 8 SpaceX rocket launches. 20 of Christo’s “Gates” installations in Central Park. One third of the net transfer fees for building Manchester City’s current group of players.

        Or 1/1000 of the annual U.S. plastic industry revenue, according to Sounds like a sound investment in the Plastics brand, to me, not that I know anything about that.

        I don’t really grasp how you imagine it is possible to deploy something similar close to shore. The cost of getting permission alone is what? Plus, Christo might well get involved. (Well, we could sell little souvenirs made out of the plastic that is collected…)

        • > I don’t really grasp how you imagine it is possible to deploy something similar close to shore. The cost of getting permission alone is what?

          You could probably get the Indonesian govt to pay you to set these up around important pollution sources. They could double as channel markers or something. I think you’ve got an implicit US/Europe focus that’s unwarranted given the global nature of the plastic pollution problem.

          • Dzhaughn says:

            I don’t know anything about Indonesia’s attitude toward this. But if you could get them to pay, I bet the project would hire you in a heartbeat. And, if governments are generally happy to pay to clean up, why is there a pollution problem?

            I would suggest anything near land has many stakeholders that have the power to scuttle it, even if just by vandalism. Contracts will have to be signed, insurance will have to be bought, lawsuits will be filed, elections contested, bribes paid. But the middle of the ocean is still remote enough that these problems might be much smaller. Or at least seem more distant.

            (But, no, sorry, I will not be making a donation.)

      • Gaythia Weis says:

        As pointed out by Phil previously, much of the plastic in the pacific gyre is commercial fishing waste. Ghost nets are actually most harmful under the surface, and are damaging en-route during whatever processes eventually might bring them to the gyre garbage patches. Adding to the problem of overfishing.

        It is probably true that other waste becomes a problem well before it gets collected in the gyre. The ecologically richest parts of the oceans are estuaries and continental shelves. Lots of harmful things can happen before the plastic gets swept out to and collected and concentrated in the gyre. Most sea life never comes near the gyre (although certainly plastics from there can spread back out through the food chain).

        Going back in time, as corporations introduced plastics, and encouraged use of disposables that needed to be repeatedly re-purchased, waste management became a serious issue. Enter recycling. It seemed to be a fix that enabled the sales and use patterns to continue and to expand. Even though, for many items, it makes very little sense to send recycling trucks through every neighborhood to gather things up and send them away, sometimes as far away as places like China. To be “recycled” in sometimes ecologically harmful wasy. China recently banned the importation of US recycled goods, something we’ve yet to wrap our minds around and figure out alternative steps.

        For some consumers it may be comforting to think that they can continue their convenient habits, the use of say. disposable plastic water bottles, if they thing that the plastic involved, even if it escapes the recycling bin and ends up in the ocean, can be simply gathered up there.

        Guilt about plastic waste could lead to thoughts about alternatives, and even regulation. Corporations may adopt small cosmetic changes as a way of avoiding the possibility of bigger structural change. Hence Starbucks is willing to work to eliminate plastic straws, but much slower to address the “recyclable” cups and what actually happens to them.

        For a complete evaluation we’d need an overall analysis of the resource, energy and environmental costs of various options. This is part of a much bigger problem with our short term profit oriented capitalistic system. Rarely is the total social and environmental cost of an action contemplated in advance.

        Hence the need to sweep up afterwards.

  16. Terry says:

    Also, we know that over-fishing is a big problem. If our goal is to improve the quantity of healthy sea life, is it more efficient to reduce over-fishing or to remove plastic?

    State your answer in dollars per pound of sea life (adjusted to standard cuttlefish units) per cubic furlong. Show your work. (16 points)

  17. dmk38 says:

    Phil– I’m trying to be sure I understand this:


    Why might it be more effective to do only one? Is the idea that, given finite resources, $1 spent to remove plastic remote from the source always means $1 less is available to control (more effective) output *at* the source?

    If, in contrast, we have the resources both to control at the source *&* to remove existing plastic remote from the source, why wouldn’t “we need to do both” be a defensible position to adopt?

    • dmk38 says:

      Phil– the “this” that I’m trying to understand is your statement that “Well, no: if it’s more effective to just do one of them, then that’s what we should do.”

      • Phil says:

        If you can remove N units of plastic per dollar by using approach A, and a*N units of plastic per dollar by using approach B where a < 1, you should put all of your dollars into approach A: you are wasting (1-a) of every dollar that you put into approach B. This assumes your goal is to remove the maximum possible amount of plastic.

        • dmk38 says:

          Right, but I think your friends who say “do both” are assuming that after maxing out on removal at the source, there is still $ left over for removal at remote points. Such a response might be naive about the resources available to remove plastic, but it doesn’t involve the inefficient allocation of removal resources that you describe. Agree?

          • Another example of quantitative illiteracy (QI). I think QI is responsible for tons of bad political decision making.

            Suppose you want to replace every coal powerplant with a solar plant. How much money will this cost, how many coal plants are there? How much money did the coal plants cost to build? What is the total payroll of coal plants annually? Express these global numbers as fractions of the GDP of the US for dollar amounts, or the number of plants required to supply electricity to N times the median US household consumption, where N is the number of households in the US…

            People need to be able to know how to ask these kinds of questions and get the answers before they can even begin to participate usefully. This kind of ability is rare among random samples of citizens.

          • Phil says:

            I’m not saying that putting a device in the ocean to remove plastic is necessarily inefficient or a bad idea…although perhaps land-based approaches that collect trash rather than dumping it in rivers or oceans in the first place would be even better, I don’t know. What I’m saying is that if you are going to put a device in the ocean to remove plastic, you should put it where the concentration is a lot higher. Yes, sure, once you’ve got devices at the top 10 locations you move on to the next 10 locations, and so on, and maybe eventually you end up with some devices in the middle of the Pacific. Eventually. But it is definitely not efficient to start by putting your device in the 100th-best location!

            Daniel, and Upmanu, pointed out earlier in the comments that perhaps one could argue that you should start working on methods for removing plastic from places where the density is low so that when it makes sense to remove plastic from the middle of the ocean the technology will be ready. Could be, although I don’t think so: surely you could deploy it now where the density is higher and still work on improving it.

            But even if this is a reasoned attempt to work on the technology so it will be mature when needed at that location, that is not what my friends are excited about, and not, I think, what other project enthusiasts are excited about. It’s that excitement that I find puzzling and that I think needs an explanation. My friends aren’t saying “Oh great, deployment of this first device is a milestone for this technology, and when it makes sense to deploy it there in twenty years the technology will be sufficiently developed that it will work well ,” they’re saying “It’s so great to finally start cleaning the ocean.” (That’s not an actual quote, just the sense of what they say).

        • Gaythia Weis says:

          It’s not just about plastics removal. Even non plastc filled ocean surface water is an ecosystem that harbors various life forms. Once the plastic is out there, it is inhabited. Life forms now on the surface and intermingled or entangled with the plastic would be gathered up. Whether or not that’s now a good thing is a complex matter. And how much would be collected and how much simply driven to greater depths/ Also there are issues involving the ship doing the collecting and the hauling of the stuff off to one of those magical “someplace else” places.

  18. KMC says:

    Thanks Phil. When considering environmental solutions quantitative reasoning goes out the window. Thanks for at least hitting this audience with a reminder that the atmosphere and ocean care about numbers. Remember that the communications staff at lots of environmental orgs, were neither science or math majors.

  19. Eli Rabett says:

    Carbon capture at power plants has a number of issues, mainly associated with the other crap you have to separate out which can mess up any process for carbon capture that you have. Doing carbon capture remotely avoids most of these and since it is usually passive has no real extra cost and some advantages

    • Gaythia Weis says:

      Much of “the other crap” also ought to be removed rather than being dumped into the atmosphere. Doing carbon capture remotely, separated from power plant operations, also has the effect of continuing the disconnect between power plant economics and the actual total social and environmental costs of their operations.

      • Eli Rabett says:

        It’s both complicated and expensive and water vapor also gets in the way. Moreover, the lesson of renewable energy is that there are times when it is free because supply can exceed demand and that energy can be used for free air capture.

        • Phil says:

          I did a small amount of work related to carbon capture, a decade ago, during which I became familiar with quite a few industrial-scale projects (both existing and proposed) to do carbon capture. Literally none of them worked with, or proposed to work with, low-concentration sources such as the ambient atmosphere. Variously, they separate carbon dioxide from natural gas; from a mixture of gases produced by industrial output (fertilizer production, for example); or from combustion gases. Looking at a recent list of projects that are operating or in preparation, this remains the case.

      • Dzhaughn says:

        If one believed that CO2 is an decades-imminent existential threat to humanity, is even a 1% increased lifetime cancer risk from other pollutants worth mentioning if it is an obstaclek?

        One may believe a certain set of political views will prevail around the world, but of course others oppose those views. If one believed that there is 20-30 years to address the CO2 balance, can one also believe there time to wait for that political triumph before acting, instead of compromising on other environmental and social issues now?

  20. Aaron Silverman says:

    John Quiggin offered a similar kvetch a few years back:

  21. Gaythia Weis says:

    A few false starts and cosmetic solutions, and resulting publicity and push-back, and eventually, who knows, we might even zero in on some reasonable ideas!

  22. angryeyeballs says:

    Mostly unrelated, but I remember having a really fun time debating the alternative energy topic in high school 2008 when I came across a niche article arguing we should be putting algae farms in the smokestacks of CO2 producing factories for eventual use in biofuel. It was basically an unfair, obscure crank idea at that time, but nowadays you can find all sorts of projects with basically the same motivation behind them. Reminds me a lot of this.

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