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Clean up your ocean!


THE EVIL OF PLASTICS has become a popular bête noire of the environmental finger-waggers and their eager chums in the media. We’ve had the war on plastic bags in supermarkets and the banning of microbeads in various cosmetics, even though there is no practical evidence that they cause harm to aquatic or human life once they’ve entered the food chain.

That leaves the presence of plastics in the oceans, which is undoubtedly a problem. What annoys me about this, however, is that the media repeatedly show film of plastic garbage swirling around the seas or piling up in heaps on beaches to make their point – in the Philippines or other places on the other side of the world. They seem oblivious to the fact (or is this deliberate?) that the aforesaid garbage is not ours but they nevertheless demand we feel guilty about it. This contradiction is never explained, even when they also report that British plastic waste which is either not collected for recycling or rejected in the process, simply goes into landfill. Not into the sea. Since it’s one of the main purposes of the media these days to make us feel permanently guilty about something, the truth doesn’t matter.

But when someone does come up with a project to do something about it the finger-waggers turn suddenly cool. Boyan Slat, a young Dutch entrepreneur, has been working on his own scheme to alleviate the problem. In 2013 he set up The Ocean Cleanup project, with the plan to build technology that would enable us to gather up the plastics floating in the world’s oceans, and take it away for recycling.

So far he’s been doing this under his own steam, on his own initiative, with private funding. And that might be what niggles some people. Despite the fact that he’s been praised by the UN (OK, maybe that doesn’t amount to much), the King of Norway and Forbes magazine, when you read some of the articles about him in the press you get the feeling he’s put out the noses of certain interested parties. A Guardian article from 2016 puts forward the nigglers’ gripes: the equipment may slow down because of biofouling; it may inadvertently catch aquatic creatures (becoming a “fish aggregator” as it is magnificently described); it may attract predators chasing that marine life; it will never be good enough to capture microplastics; and people will continue to dump their plastics into the sea anyway.

Even a more recent article, this time in The Telegraph, casts a sceptical eye over the whole project, quoting one scientist: “We have serious concerns about Ocean Cleanup and its effectiveness.” Again they emphasise the difficulties: various marine life may not escape its clutches, it may produce too many dreaded greenhouse gases (strewth! you just can’t win with these people, can you?); and it won’t capture anything that has sunk to the ocean floor.

It is without doubt an ambitious project and the difficulties it will encounter will be extreme. It may ultimately prove unworkable. Is that reason to disparage it? What I find puzzling is the resistance to the project displayed by those already involved in trying to solve the problem. I find it puzzling, that is, until my native cynicism kicks in. I may be way off the mark here but this is what I think.

Boyan Slat is a private individual, not an employee of an institution or a member of some acknowledged environmental group, so he is rather putting them to shame.

The dissenters are all professionals in their field. Boyan Slat is not. He is therefore an amateur(ish) interloper poaching on their territory. Professional authority and reputation are therefore being impugned. Slat is a private individual, not an employee of an institution or a member of some acknowledged environmental group, so he is rather putting them to shame. Individuality outside a group context these days is suspicious. He is an entrepreneur, self-directed and independent of institutions and government. Employed professionals are not always sympathetic to those who work outside the system, especially when it comes to raising cash. As an individual running his own foundation Slat is not at the mercy of state sponsors whose funding can often be restrictive and fickle. In other words, he is beholden only to the success or failure of his own project (which is non-profit, by the way).

Some arguments put forward by critics are sound, but others are ridiculous. Are we supposed to give up trying to remove existing plastic from the oceans simply because other plastics will continue to be dumped in the sea, or that getting people to clean up their beaches would be enough to solve the problem? Are we to forget about trying to remove the detritus from the surface just because there is junk on the seabed or microplastics in the food chain? What kind of pettifoggery is this?

Slat is a brilliant example of entrepreneurial individualism applied to the kind of problem normally “solved” by corporate, state intervention. Clearly this annoys some people, who prefer the dominant collectivist approach to every problem. When “something must be done” they automatically turn their eyes to the state. They rarely think the individual can, or should, try to make a difference.

Well, they can keep their sour grapes. Whether he succeeds or not, I wish Boyan Slat and his project good fortune.

Currente Calamo columnist, poet and writer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent book is Albion Days (perennisperegrinator press).

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