Efforts to reduce litter in the environment, including the use of clean-up technologies, hold great promise. However, we must consider how to harness their full potential, Jannike Falk-Andersson writes.(Foto: Akvaplan-niva)
The «plastic paradox»: Some clean-up technologies do more harm than good
OPINION: The ever-increasing problem of plastic pollution has prompted widespread efforts to combat it through innovative clean-up technologies. These advancements, however, often seen as the silver bullet to solve our plastic crisis, sometimes do more harm than good.
JannikeFalk-AnderssonSenior Research Scientist, The Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA)
This plastic clean-up paradox is addressed
in a recent publication, where a group of stakeholders representing different perspectives were
brought together to discuss this pressing issue.
The consensus emerging from the
dialogue is clear: clean-up technologies must be regulated within the framework
of an international plastics treaty to ensure they genuinely benefit the environment.
In other words: We must adopt a
philosophy of «clean it up, not mess it up».
Capture plastics, not turtles
So why the caution? When we target
litter, we obviously encounter ecosystems teeming with life. Dragging a net
across the ocean to capture plastics may unintentionally trap the very
organisms we aim to protect, like the unfortunate turtle ensnared in our
Moreover, the effectiveness of a
technology at one place may be impractical in another. Consider the case of the
clean-up equipment supplied to the Sri Lankan government following the X-Press
Pearl disaster, where plastic nurdles inundated the environment.
To get more bang for the buck we should therefore support projects focusing on areas that are the most polluted and can be cleaned relatively effortlessly.
technology was designed for dry surfaces, but the nurdles had seeped into wet
substrates, so that the equipment was inadequate. The lack of funds and
capacity for repairs meant that manual clean-ups were more cost-efficient. This
underscores the importance of evaluating cost-effectiveness before selecting a
clean-up approach for a specific area.
Litter concentration also plays a
key role. Many clean-up technologies are tailored for oceanic debris, but the
densest accumulations are often found on shorelines. The cost of implementing
clean-up technologies also increases the more difficult the area is to access,
with seafloor and open-ocean clean-ups having very high capital costs.
To get more bang for the buck we should therefore support projects
focusing on areas that are the most polluted and can be cleaned relatively
Post clean-up issues
We also know very little about what
happens to the litter after it has been removed from the environment. The
litter must be sorted, transported, and processed. All these steps may include
unexpected hick-ups. In many cases, most of what is trapped is organic
material. This must be removed, and the litter cleaned and sorted into
fractions that hopefully can be recycled.
Transporting litter across
national jurisdictions may not be easy. Safe deposit or recycling facilities might
be unavailable locally, increasing the risk that the plastic recovered end up
in places it shouldn’t – like back into the ocean.
It has also been shown that
plastic that has been in the ocean are of low quality, making it difficult to
To ensure that clean-ups provide a
net benefit, we must carefully consider these factors.
How to maximize the impact of
Efforts to reduce litter in the
environment, including the use of clean-up technologies, hold great promise.
However, we must consider how to harness their full potential.
First, understanding the types of
litter found provides valuable insights for decision-makers aiming to prevent
further littering. Data collection is paramount.
Additionally, the operation and
effectiveness of clean-up technologies can inform outreach programs, inspiring
greater public involvement in addressing the plastic crisis. Managing
technology, encouraging communication, and promoting litter reuse and recycling
can also create economic opportunities and meaningful employment.
To ensure we make the most of
these efforts, we advocate for the implementation of guidelines and regulations
related to clean-up technologies within the international plastics treaty. This
step is vital for robust evaluation processes, efficient deployment of clean-up
technologies, proper documentation of litter's fate, and enhanced monitoring
and outreach efforts.
By doing this, clean-up
technologies can be part of the solution to plastic pollution, allowing us to
be cleaning up without messing up.