Cleaning the Ocean Gyres and entropy

One of the less well-known aspects of environmental damage is the problem of plastic (and other debris) in the ocean gyres. These are parts of the ocean where currents go in circles, tending to concentrate waste in those areas. Often it’s a case of “out of sight, out of mind” since they’re well away from land, but researchers are beginning to discover just how much plastic ends up there. And others are thinking about how they might conceivably be cleared up.

This has led to a detailed but interesting post explaining just how impractical and expensive this might be. While the popular perception might be of floating islands of garbage, reality is that the pollution is spread over hundreds of square miles and to a considerable depth, and becomes combined with animal and plant life. Extracting it thus becomes near-impossible without denuding the ocean of life, and it makes any recycling of the plastic very difficult too.

Not that the plastic is of much use: it gets degraded through use and exposure to the elements, so there is not much that can be done with it economically.

It’s an illustration of the point made well by Tom Walker on the SCORAI list:

Messy systemic problems do not lend themselves to tidy one-size-fits-all
solutions. And they lend themselves all too easily to confirmation-biased
research claims. Contrary to popular usage of the term, it isn’t
“consumption” that is the problem as much as it is the fact that nothing is
really consumed—it is transformed from low-entropy material and energy
to high-entropy waste.

Entropy, for those who don’t know their physics, can best be thought of as equivalent to chaos as opposed to order. You can think of plastics as going from reasonably well ordered when made, to more chaotic when finished with, to totally chaotic when discarded, shredded and degraded in the ocean. The point at which we grab them and do something with them determines how much of this order is “lost” – not using the plastic at all preserves the order, recycling saves much of it, grabbing it from the ocean causes it to be lost.

There’s a spiritual aspect to this too. God’s original creative act, as described in Genesis 1:1, was to bring order from chaos. This continues: we have a world in which, eventually, our waste products will be dealt with and recycled into something new. It just takes rather longer than we’d like. Or we have the energy from the sun to be able to help us along. Our problem is that the rate of consumption (or entropy increase) is too much for either of these processes to deal with, at present, and as noted above, technological solutions are as yet rather limited.

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