In this Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016 file photo, a man guides a raft through a polluted canal littered with plastic bags and other garbage in Mumbai, India.

YouTube influencers work to stem the flow of trash to the seas

The world’s oceans are in trouble, and plastic is a huge part of it. A group of YouTube influencers is now helping to slow the estimated 20 billion pounds of plastic that get dumped into the ocean each year.

Living on Earth

In this Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016 file photo, a man guides a raft through a polluted canal littered with plastic bags and other garbage in Mumbai, India.

Rafiq Maqbool/AP file photo

An estimated 20 billion pounds of plastic trash get dumped into the ocean each year, wreaking havoc on the planet. Now, a group of YouTube influencers calling themselves Team Seas is working together to stem the flow of trash. They aim to raise $30 million and collect 30 million pounds of trash from the world’s oceans.

The group is led by Mark Rober, a YouTuber, engineer and inventor, and Mr. Beast, another hugely popular YouTuber.

Two years ago, Mr. Beast reached 20 million subscribers and, along with Rober, launched Team Trees, which raised $23 million to plant 20 million trees. Initially, Rober planned to build a robot to do it because he is known for building “ridiculous things,” he says. But it turns out, it’s really hard to design a robot that can plant 20 million trees.

Two years on, they have followed up with Team Seas. Their goal this time is to raise $30 million. Every dollar raised will lead to one less pound of plastic and trash in the ocean.

So far, the median donation is around $5, which Rober says is a lot of “tooth fairy” and allowance money because many small donations come from young people who feel passionate about cleaning up the world’s oceans. Rober says he takes his obligation to these donors "super seriously," so donations don’t go toward mailings or paying someone’s salary. They go only toward removing plastic and trash from the ocean.

Team Seas is working with two nonprofits: The Ocean Conservancy, which focuses on cleaning up the beaches and the ocean itself; and The Ocean Cleanup, which has built a “trash-eating river monster” called the River Interceptor.

"[O]ne percent of the rivers in the world contribute to 80% of the plastic flowing to the ocean from rivers. If you can put these trash-eating robots at the mouths of these rivers, then you can stop [the trash] from going into the ocean at the source.”

Mark Rober, inventor, YouTuber

“[A]t some point, you got to turn the tap off, right,” Rober explains. “It's one thing to take the trash out of the ocean. But 1% of the rivers in the world contribute to 80% of the plastic flowing to the ocean from rivers. If you can put these trash-eating robots at the mouths of these rivers, then you can stop [the trash] from going into the ocean at the source.”

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Rober visited the Dominican Republic to see first-hand one of the rivers that is among the 1% that contributes so much trash to the ocean. 

“It was just wild to see trash coming down the river in the form of like, a couch, a shoe, a tire, a basketball, a pile of trash, a lot of plastic bottles,” he says.

The River Interceptor, which Rober filmed for his YouTube channel, has a barrier that extends about a foot and a half deep underwater. Fish can swim freely under it, but because trash floats, it gets corralled by the trash robot and runs via a conveyor belt into dumpsters aboard the vessel. When the dumpsters are full, they get floated down the river and offloaded.

“What's recyclable, gets recycled,” Rober says. “Otherwise, it just goes to whatever the local waste management is for that area. But, importantly, none of it ends up back in the sea.”

Rober felt frustrated at first by seeing so much trash coming down the river. But when he went upriver and checked it out, he found that much of the trash comes from poor, remote communities that lack the infrastructure to dispose of their trash.

“We have this magical ability, here in a rich country, to put our trash in a bin and then, magically, at the end of the day, the trash is gone,” Rober says. “Even in the Dominican Republic, in the cities that are more developed, that's how it works. But in these remote communities, a trash truck can't make it up there. … They are literally living on piles of trash, in some cases.”

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The Dominican government recognizes the problem and is working with the UN to find systemic solutions, and the people in these poor communities are eager to participate as well, but these things take time, Rober notes.

“So, in the meantime, you put these trash-eating robots on the river,” he says. “Eventually, we will not need them there. But until that day comes, this is a great solution.”

In years past, raising money for something like Team Seas would be a complicated, expensive undertaking. Now, Rober notes, with YouTube and Twitter and TikTok, an individual or a group of people who feels passionate about something can get their message out, amplify it and make things happen.

“So, it's like a different way to fundraise that hasn't been typically available, I think, historically,” Rober says. “I think you'll start seeing it more and more, as some of these initiatives get success because it feels very grassroots, right? … I think that authenticity shines through and it resonates with people, which is why we're able to raise as much money as we have so far.”

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Rober understands that raising $30 million and removing 30 million pounds of plastic and trash out of the ocean does not solve the problem.

“But it’s a) 30 million less pounds than would have been in there otherwise, and b) I think, almost more importantly, it's like if you donate even $3, you are now part of Team Seas, you're on that team,” Rober points out. “And next time you go to the beach and you see a water bottle on the sand, you're like, ‘Whoa, I'm part of Team Seas. That's not how I roll. This can't happen.’”

This article was written by Adam Wernick based on an interview by Bobby Bascomb of Mark Rober that aired on Living on Earth from PRX.

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