Boyan Slat, the Dutch scientist wunderkind, has come up with an idea to filter plastic debris directly out of the ocean. His concept involves a complicated array of long floating booms that he says will funnel floating plastic particles into a collection area where they can be removed permanently from the marine environment. These tiny pieces of plastic will then be sorted by type and recycled. It’s a fascinating plan and it’s gotten great exposure, even though it is highly unlikely that it will function as advertised once out on the open ocean. At this point, it seems certain that his invention will be far more effective at removing money from the pockets of his donors than at taking plastic out of the ocean.
But Mr. Slat is hardly alone. Far from it. It seems that almost everywhere you look these days you'll see homage being paid to the idea that we can geek our way out of our environmental crises. We put billions into research and development, desperately seeking more solutions for repairing the damage we have done, while at the same time, doing even more.
The development of biodegradable plastic is another one of these large-scale technological fixes, and was hailed by almost everybody as a breakthrough when it first came out. After time and study, however, it seems that this new plastic doesn’t really break down the way it was supposed to. Even if it is disposed of properly, most landfills lack the temperatures and chemical combinations needed to complete decomposition. In the ocean environment, the material is nothing more than a novelty, no different than its non-biodegradable brethren. Finally, according to a recent United Nations report, it is possible that the development of biodegradable plastic has actually made the situation in the oceans even worse. It seems that there is evidence that, "labelling (sic) a product as 'biodegradable' will result in a greater inclination to litter on the part of the public."
To explore that last sentence and unpack the meaning inside it would take far more space than we have to work with here. But it would be worth reading it one more time, at least.
We see the word ‘biodegradable,’ and we figure the old rules don’t apply. We buy more plastic and more of that plastic inevitably finds its way to the ocean, where it will never, ever break down. It's a good bet that, thousands of years from now, archaeologists will still be able to clearly read the word ‘biodegradable’ stamped into many of the things we have left behind.
There is a strange sense of entitlement that is doing real and lasting damage to our home planet. We don't want to give anything up, we still want everything we already have and we are possessed with a relentless aspiration for more. Sure, we would very much like to protect the planet while we're at it, thank you, and we want to be as green as we can be, but we have grown accustomed to a lifestyle and a mindset that ensures continued destruction. We are attracted to ideas that promise us a cleaner future and a healthier world, but that won't interfere with our expanding levels of consumption.
Plastic is cheap. (It is artificially cheap, given that its true costs are not figured into the price of production, but that is a story for another time). It is its low cost that explains its ubiquity and the main reason why recycling programs are financial sinkholes. It is the pinnacle of convenience, the ideal product for the human-centered universe, and its appeal to instant gratification is at the core of why you can now find plastic debris on every beach on the planet. The polymer mess we have made is uncomfortable proof that, when it comes right down to it, the most important thing on the planet may be our own sense of privilege.
With all due respect to Boyan Slat and the wizards who came up with biodegradable plastic, the answers to global issues like ocean plastics are unlikely to be found in the wonders of technology. If we are to stop the fouling of our collective nest, it will take fundamental changes for each one of us. The essential cleanup starts on the inside, with a renewed commitment to live our values, and the realization that not doing so is an ongoing measure of our own personal and cultural insanity.
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