Skip to content

The best is the enemy of the good. It is also the enemy of the not so good.

This post is by Phil Price, not Andrew.

The Ocean Cleanup Project’s device to clean up plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is back in the news because it is back at work and is successfully collecting plastic. A bunch of my friends are pretty happy about it and have said so on social media…and it drives me nuts. The machine might be OK but it makes no sense to put it way out in the Pacific.  Someone asked why not, and here’s what I wrote:

Suppose I have a machine that removes plastic from all of the water it encounters. I offer you a choice: you can put it in a location where it will remove 1 ton per month — the Pacific Garbage Patch — or in a location where it will remove 10 tons per month (let’s say that’s the Gulf of Thailand but in fact I do not know where the best place would be). Obviously you will put it where it can remove 10 tons per month. Now you raise money to build and operate a second machine. You put your first machine in the best place you could find, so do you now put your second machine in the Pacific Garbage Patch? You shoudn’t, if your goal is to remove as much plastic from the ocean as possible: you should put it in the best place where you don’t already have a machine…the Bay of Bengal, maybe. Or maybe it, too, should go in the Gulf of Thailand. Or maybe in the Caribbean. I have no idea where the plastic concentrations are highest, but I know it is not the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. At any rate you should put the first machine where it will remove the most plastic per month; the second machine in the best remaining place after you have installed the first one; the third machine in the best remaining place after you have installed the first two; and so on. The Pacific Garbage Patch isn’t literally the last place you should install a machine, but it is way way down the list. (If you know in advance that you are going to build a lot of machines, you can optimize the joint placement of all of them and you might come up with a slightly different answer, but let’s not worry about that detail.)

The paragraph above assumes that you are just trying to remove as much plastic from the ocean as possible. If you have some other goal then of course the answer could be different. For instance, if you are trying to reduce the amount of plastic at some specific spot in the middle of the Pacific, you should put your machine at that spot even if it won’t get you very much in terms of plastic removed per month.

That paragraph also implicitly assumes the cost of installing and operating the machine is the same everywhere. If it is very expensive to install and operate the machine in the Gulf of Thailand, then maybe you’d be better off somewhere else: for the same money as one machine in the place where it would maximize the plastic removal per month, maybe I could build two machines and install them in cheaper places where they would combine to remove more plastic. It becomes an optimization problem. But: I have never seen anyone, not even the project proponents, who thinks the middle of the Pacific is a relatively _cheap_ place to install and operate a machine: in fact it is very expensive because it is so remote.

And of course the situation gets even more complicated when you consider other factors like whether you will interfere with fishing or with ship traffic, what effect will the machine have on the marine ecosystem, are you inside or outside a nation’s territorial waters, and so on.

Choosing the best place for your first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth,… machine might be complicated, but I have not seen any reasonable argument for why the Pacific Garbage Patch is even in the running. It just doesn’t make sense.

I am in agreement with…uh, I think it was Darrell Huff (author of “How to Lie with Statistics”) who made this point, but I could be wrong… when he said that the more important something is, the more important it is to be rational about it. If you’re trying to save human lives, for example, anything other than the most efficient allocation of resources is literally killing people. So to the extent that it is important to people to remove plastic from the oceans, it’s important to allocate resources efficiently. But, much as we would like to think it is important to people and therefore should be done as efficiently as possible, in fact people are often not rational. It may be the case that people are willing to contribute much much more money, time, and energy to a program to remove plastic from the ocean inefficiently than to one that would do so efficiently. If people are willing to contribute to remove plastic from the Pacific Garbage Patch but not from anywhere else, well, OK, put your machine in the Pacific Garbage Patch. So I’m not saying people shouldn’t do this project. I’m just saying it doesn’t make sense. That is, sadly, not the same thing.


This post is by Phil, not Andrew


  1. Anoneuoid says:

    Same thing for climate change. Governments/people should be prepping in a way that leaves them prepared for a variety of natural disasters (supervolcanoe, solar micronova, droughts, floods, etc). Once that is done, they can start focusing on plans for specific scenarios. Politics makes people adopt some pretty messed up priorities though.

    • jim says:

      “Politics makes people adopt some pretty messed up priorities though.”

      That makes it sound like “politics” is some uncontrollable independent force of nature when, in fact, the policies that are enacted are the result of the efforts of individuals.

  2. Ken Carlson says:

    I notice that all your scenarios use garbage as the immediate objective. What if information is the immediate objective, on the way to garbage removed later? For example, you want to be noticed, or you want prove concept.

    • Dale Lehman says:

      This is a very good point. If we apply this logic to our recent discussions about hype, noisy studies, pizzagate, etc. then I think this logic results in the opposite conclusion than most of us have been expressing. For example, consider the Wasnink debacle. If people are “not rational” then plausibly Wasnink’s over-hyped and perhaps fraudulent results for childhood nutrition should be welcomed as getting irrational people to pay attention to the importance of diet. In fact, Andrew posted about this very topic – and, as I recall (myself included), most comments rejected that defense for sloppy or fraudulent research practices. The issue of opportunity cost is usually brought up as relevant damage from defending bad research practices in the name of good intentions.

      It seems to me that Phil’s view here leads to the opposite conclusion. It should be easy to defend sloppy research on the grounds that the best (research) is the enemy of the good (intentions). I don’t see why cleaning up garbage should lead to a different conclusion than conducting statistical analysis.

  3. jrkrideau says:

    @ Ken Carlson October 13, 2019 at 8:33 am

    It strikes me that placing the machine in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a proof of concept and excellent publicity for the issue of plastic pollution. If anything, the publicity maybe the most valuable outcome.

    • Terry says:

      The pictures I’ve seen show a pathetically small amount of plastic collected, so it sounds to me like a refutation of concept. The publicity that implies the opposite, therefore, appears to be the most harmful outcome.

  4. Adede says:

    I thought everybody has concluded this machine was a joke and waste of money amyway.

    • S says:

      This post highlights why I am an ardent supporter of geoengineering. If we really want to tackle climate change, then we have to consider all options. Of course getting off of fossil fuels is important, but I am very confident we’ll see that geonengineering options will give us the best bang for our buck (not to say we can’t transition away from fossil fuels at the same time).

    • Phil says:

      Not everybody! My facebook feed has lots of people linking to stories about it and saying “good news!” and “isn’t this great” etc. etc. That’s what prompted this post.

  5. Terry says:

    Phil is proving that the purpose of the plastic-removal machine is not (solely) to remove plastic from the oceans.

    If removing plastic were the actual purpose, then they would have put it somewhere else. Therefore, its purpose is something else. QED.

    If A –> B
    Not B
    Therefore, not A

  6. Terry says:

    So why didn’t they put the machine somewhere like Thailand?

    Where does most of the plastic come from? Answer: China, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia. (Cool graphic:

    So how does the story change if they had put the machine off China or Indonesia? Answer: you can’t blame Americans and Europeans nearly as much –> fewer tearful demonstrations and press releases blaming Americans and Europeans.

    So putting it in the middle of the Pacific is better because you can still hold a demonstration in Nebraska to “save the turtles”.

  7. Terry says:

    Fun fact: most of the Pacific Garbage Patch is fishing nets and other fishing gear.

    So if you were actually interested in cleaning up the Pacific Garbage Patch, you would build something to catch free-floating fishing nets. (Which sounds far easier and more efficient than scooping up miscellaneous surface debris.) I would also think that free-floating fishing nets are horrible for fish and marine mammals.

    Therefore, these people aren’t really interested in cleaning up the Pacific Garbage Patch.

    If A –> B
    Not B
    Therefore, not A

    • Speed says:

      Annoyingly the link requires my email address. Here is another National Geographic page with, I guess, the same information.

      Great Pacific Garbage Patch
      The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean. Marine debris is litter that ends up in the ocean, seas, and other large bodies of water.

      Supporting Phil Price’s idea it says,

      Cleaning up marine debris is not as easy as it sounds. Many microplastics are the same size as small sea animals, so nets designed to scoop up trash would catch these creatures as well. Even if we could design nets that would just catch garbage, the size of the oceans makes this job far too time-consuming to consider. The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program has estimated that it would take 67 ships one year to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean.

  8. Terry says:

    Fun fact: The US ships a lot of its plastic recycling to China for processing. (At least they used to.) A lot of it can’t be economically recycled, so China just dumps some of it in the ocean so some of it ends up in the Pacific Garbage Patch.

    So what can you do to keep your straws out of the Pacific Garbage Patch? Answer: don’t recycle your straws. Instead, make sure they are safely sequestered in an eco-friendly landlocked garbage dump. Do it for the turtles!

    • By far the best thing to do with plastic trash is to pipe it into a properly designed electric power plant and burn it at high temperatures to produce electricity. it’s high energy density fuel, and the output of such a system would be water and carbon dioxide. The power plant could offset coal and hence on net reduce emissions.

  9. charlesA says:

    Terry, Phil means well but makes huge unstated assumptions about the effectiveness of his plastic-removal machines versus the “plastics problem”. He also totally ignores the basic economics problem of very limited resources versus thousands of serious existential threats faced by humans.
    Freely spending other people’s money on one’s own pet issue always seems a popular ideological pursuit.

  10. Steve says:

    I am pretty sure that putting the machine in the Gulf of Thailand or the South China Sea would not be optimal. They would just take the plastic back to Thailand or China, and then it would be dumped back into the ocean.

  11. Dzhaughn says:

    Imagine if all that wasted money went into campaigns to ban plastic straws!

Leave a Reply