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Surface clean-up technology won't solve ocean plastic problem - University of Exeter

Plastic bag in the ocean (credit Making Oceans Plastic Free.)
Plastic bag in the ocean (credit Making Oceans Plastic Free.)

Clean-up devices that collect waste from the ocean surface won't solve the plastic pollution problem, a new study shows.

Researchers compared estimates of current and future plastic waste with the ability of floating clean-up devices to collect it – and found the impact of such devices was "very modest".

However, river barriers could be more effective and – though they have no impact on plastic already in the oceans – they could reduce pollution "significantly" if used in tandem with surface clean-up technology.

The study – by the University of Exeter, the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research, the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, Jacobs University and Making Oceans Plastic Free – focusses on floating plastic, as sunk waste is difficult or impossible to remove depending on size and location.

The authors estimate that the amount of plastic reaching the ocean will peak in 2029, and surface plastic will hit more than 860,000 metric tonnes – more than double the current estimated 399,000 – by 2052 (when previous research suggested the rate of plastic pollution may finally reach zero).

"The important message of this paper is that we can't keep polluting the oceans and hoping that technology will tidy up the mess," said Dr Jesse F. Abrams, of the Global Systems Institute and the Institute for Data Science and Artificial Intelligence, both at the University of Exeter. "Even if we could collect all the plastic in the oceans – which we can't – it's really difficult to recycle, especially if plastic fragments have floated for a long time and been degraded or bio-fouled. The other major solutions are to bury or burn it – but burying could contaminate the ground and burning leads to extra CO2 emissions to the atmosphere.”

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