A beach closure sign stands to notify residents of unsafe conditions in Long Beach, California, U.S. (Photographer: Kevork Djansezian/Bloomberg)

Environmental Cleanup Is Great, But … Please Stop Polluting

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When considering what do do about pollution, there are two kinds of people: techno-optimists who assume humanity will eventually find a way to clean up all our messes, and those less fun but more pragmatic environmentalists who say that it’s always easier and cheaper to avoid making the mess in the first place.

Battle just broke out between these two sides over a project brimming with feel-good allure — an attempt, begun this month, to scoop up the infamous Pacific garbage patch. The patch is more of a soup than a patch. Recent estimates say it contains 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic weighing a total of 87,000 tons. The cleanup will employ a series of booms and a giant net.

According to an account in Science News, the company promising to get the garbage, Ocean Cleanup, had its origin with a TED talk by an 18-year-old. People were inspired. The young man got $30 million in crowdsourced funding.

It’s hard not to love the story, but some experts do fear it’s misguided or overhyped. They say the cleanup doesn’t catch the worst offenders — tiny bits of “microplastic” that choke or poison birds and sea creatures. It also doesn’t address the source of the problem: Scientists estimate that we are still adding eight million tons of plastic to the ocean every year.

One skeptic, French oceanographer Maria-Luiza Pedrotti, was profiled this month in Quanta Magazine. She’s leading voyages to study the microbial inhabitants of garbage patches in the Pacific and Mediterranean. She’s found that plastic has changed the microbiology of the regions, with garbage patches harboring a heavy load of vibrio — a group of bacteria that include cholera and other pathogens. Whether this is dangerous to human health remains unknown.

But we do know that much of the plastic has been reduced to microscopic size. In some areas, she’s measured that there’s much more plastic than plankton, which means animals at the bottom of the food chain will eat plastic and starve.

A similar dispute broke out last summer over a new, promising technology for pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Some hailed it as the solution to climate change, but others, taking the long view, recognized that it can be only a small part of the solution. Like plastic cleanup, it won’t make much difference unless people cut back on pollution as well.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She has written for the Economist, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science and other publications. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology.

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