“I’ve got one word for you … plastics.”

With apologies to “The Graduate,” plastics have been plaguing my brain.

Brunswick resident Heather D. Martin wants to know what’s on your mind; email her at [email protected]

It is no secret that plastics have taken an enormous toll on the environment. Shrink-wrapped vegetables, single-use shopping bags, bottled water – all part of our “forever trash” created thanks to plastic’s inability to biodegrade, not to mention the pollution created in making the stuff in the first place. Plastics are a problem.

I am not naive. I realize that a world without plastic is not likely, or even desirable. After all, plastics are a lightweight, inexpensive, sterile alternative to problems of the past. Plastics have given us lighter cars that use less gas, more affordable appliances, lifesaving medical equipment. There’s a lot to like about plastics.

After all, the very first plastic was created by one John Wesley Hyatt in 1869 as alternative for ivory in order to end the slaughter of elephants for billiard balls. Truth. It was hailed as an eco-triumph replacement for ivory, tortoise shell and horn. I can’t help but admire that, as well as take a lesson about unintended consequences to even the best-intentioned action.

My point is this, I am not blanket anti-plastic.

However, while I cede that plastic has a place, surely we can all agree that place is not our oceans. Plastics have been found in Arctic ice and at the bottom of the ocean and it even formed its own “island.” Plastics now kill an estimated 1 million seabirds, and well over 100,000 marine animals each year through entanglement, suffocation and ingestion. Images of dead whales with bellies filled with plastic haunt me. On top of this, it is estimated that marine debris costs around $1.25 billion each year in damage to the fishing industry.

Enter Boyan Slat, a brilliant young visionary. Slat first became aware of the issue while on a vacation to Greece as a teenager. While many of us might have responded by writing an angry social media post about it and calling it a day, Slat set aside his plans for higher education and, at the age of 19, launched his organization, The Ocean Cleanup.

Now, a mere six years, many prototypes, and a few trial runs later, Slat’s invention, the “System 001/B,” an autonomous, solar-powered floating garbage retrieval system, has succeeded and is well on its way to attaining the working goal to “remove 90% of all ocean plastics by 2040,” turning the harvested waste into recycled premium product. It’s inaugural run retrieved “vast amounts” of garbage ranging in size from fishing nets to “barely discernible micro-plastics.” Holy smokes.

Collection is, of course, a critical piece of the puzzle – but it must be coupled with a decrease in production. Brunswick banned single-use bags a while back, and Maine as a whole is set to ban them by Earth Day – thank you, Gov. Mills! I continue to work on alternatives within my own home as well.

But in a time when hope can feel small in the face of concerns, Slat has inspired me, both with his innovative solution to a seemingly overwhelming problem – and in his simple refusal to accept the “no” when he was told, by those who are older and wiser, that the problem was unsolvable.

Solutions exist. I like your style, Boyd Slat. I thank you.

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