Plastic waste floating around the seas is so scattered that it cannot be removed without damaging vital animal and plant life, Norwegian researchers have concluded, describing the uphill battle of cleansing the world ocean as a “waste of time and resources”.
“The rubbish in the sea is a lost cause, there is no point in cleaning it up,” the researchers from the company SALT, based in Svolvær in Lofoten, wrote in their research paper, suggesting that it is not only not worth the money spent, but also inflicts significant damage on marine life.
According to SALT, plastic rubbish is too scattered, and attempts to clean it using technology are inefficient.
“In addition, it is rubbish is often found in marine life and organic material that is important for the ecosystems and animals that live there. In the worst case, we risk doing more harm than good by trawling over the areas,” researcher and lead author Jannike Falk-Andersson told national broadcaster NRK.
Kjersti E.T. Busch of SALT stressed specifically that clearing large sea areas is particularly futile.
“You will catch too much fish and wildlife compared with the amount of rubbish. It does more harm than good, it seems,” she said.
By contrast, beach cleaning is a far more effective and gentle method, according to experts.
“There, you pick one thing at a time. You do not drag large objects across the beach that kills everything it comes across, in an attempt to clean up,” Falk-Andersson explained.
In general, there is also a higher density of rubbish on beaches, which makes cleansing attempts more efficient.
Norwegian Climate and Environment Minister Sveinung Rotevatn of the Liberal Party stressed that cleaning must be done where it is most effective, pointing out beach zones and rivers as the most actionable targets.
“It is very good that a critical spotlight is placed on clearing plastic in the sea. We have long pointed out that cleaning in the sea areas starts at the wrong end and that there is a risk of damage to life in the sea when trawling for plastic,” Rotevatn told NRK.
Nevertheless, he stressed the urgency of combating sea plastic, which he described as a rapidly escalating problem, and called for international efforts and principles for prevention work, including a global agreement.
According to various calculations, 15 tonnes of plastic enters the world seas each minute. Should the pollution continue at the same rate, there will be more plastic than wildlife in the world ocean by around 2050.
Plastic debris is responsible for the death of thousands upon thousands of marine birds and animals by entanglement, suffocation or poisoning, and even leads to chemical contamination of the fish for human consumption when it reaches microscopic levels.
In recent years, numerous efforts to cleanse the seas of plastic have been undertaken, with one of the most celebrated being the Ocean Cleanup project by Dutch researcher and entrepreneur Boyan Slat.