Elextrolux has commodified, beautified, and publicized one of the worst pollution dilemmas of the century. Last Fall they unveiled “Vacs from the Sea,” a series of vacuum cleaners made from ocean plastics. Each vac uses plastic from one of five global gyre locations collected in collaboration with environmental groups.
The North Sea edition, for example, is made of plastic detergent bottles, buckets, and cans collected from beaches in western Sweden. The plastic was cleaned, punched into rounds and embedded in the fiberglass body of the machine. The vacuums are more of a concept than a consumer product, since the laborious manual gathering, cleaning, and sorting processes do not lend themselves to mass production.
But I still want one. What a fantastic way to raise awareness about ocean plastics. Ocean plastics range in size from enormous ghost fishing net conglomerates to microplastics nanometers wide. They create a range of problems: they entangle and are ingested by marine animals, leach and attract plastic chemicals, and are used as floating rafts for hitchhiking alien species to infest new areas. We’ve been hearing about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the most famous of the ocean gyres, since Captain Charles Moore sailed through it in 2001 and found that plastic outweighed plankton six to one. Vacs from the Sea highlight the global nature of the phenomenon by gathering plastic from the North Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, the Pacific Ocean, and the Baltic Sea.
But there’s a hitch. Vacuums vacuum. Implicitly, the Vacs from the Sea feed the fantasy that we can vacuum all that plastic out of the ocean, sucking it up like dirt in our favorite green shag rug. Cleaning up beaches is, after all, what Elextrolux did to get the plastic to make the vacs in the first place. What better way to visualize this necessary action than a vacuum? Therein lies the rub. Not one vacuum, not a million vacuums, could contain the plastics in the oceans. According to the rough calculations of researcher Stiv Wilson, it would take 17% of the world’s oil tankers working full time to haul the 315 billion pounds of plastic bits out of the ocean.
And that is only the scale of the problem. The logistics of the problem are even more overwhelming. Vacuums are non-discriminatory suckers. They’ll suck up any dirt that isn’t nailed down. But how are you going to divide the plankton from the plastic soup they swim in? And how will we get the plastic out of the belly of the plankton?
Ocean plastics are the discards that can’t be picked up. Moreover, even if you do pick them up, what are you going to do with them? Plastics last hundreds of years, depending on conditions. The vacuum bag or the landfill are temporary stops in the long life of a plastic bit. In two hundred years, researchers may be identifying parts of Vacs from the Sea back in the sea.
These are some of the reasons ocean plastics pose such a daunting and unique pollution challenge. Our regular avenues of picking up, diluting, patching up, or stopping the flow of a pollutant isn’t going to work this time. And that is why the Vacs from the Sea, while an example of creative thinking inside the box, are a problem of imagination. Along with ideas for habitable plastic islands or worldwide clean ups, Vacs from the Sea feed an imagination based on an outdated model of pollution. Of course we still need to clean beaches and store the plastics somewhere, until we figure out a better way to deal with the problem. But the problem we face is imaging a sustainable future with the facts at hand. Who will tackle the problem of ocean plastics on the terms of ocean plastics? Who will help us envision the end of single-use plastics? Or the world without new plastics? Or…?