This week, YouTuber MrBeast posted a video with an elaborate, death-free reconstruction of the challenges from the popular South Korean drama Squid Game to his, as of the time of this writing, 82.9 million followers. The video garnered criticism from many who saw it as a tone-deaf stunt that completely misses the show’s point about income inequality. In response, MrBeast’s fans pointed out how he gives away large sums of cash throughout the video, even to those eliminated, and is generally seen as a humanitarian.
“Mr. Beast is literally donating so much money, giving meals to homeless people, saving the oceans etc, so let this man have fun,” one of his defenders wrote on Twitter.
“Saving the oceans” refers to a campaign MrBeast is running with fellow YouTuber Mark Rober called Team Seas. The goal is to raise $US30 (A$43) million to clean 14 million kilograms of trash out of the ocean. “Let’s show the world that we want a clean ocean,” MrBeast says in the official campaign video as he recruits dozens of volunteers to pick up trash on a beach; that video had more than 48 million views as of early December, and the campaign has already raised $US17 (A$24) million in a few short weeks.
But Team Seas feels closer to MrBeast’s Squid Game and his other stunts rather than something truly aspirational. It’s entertaining to watch, makes you root for the participants, makes you feel good about the outcome. But the spectacle does nothing to address the deeper problems at hand — and is even providing cover for some polluters to greenwash their reputation. Ultimately, it’s a form of positive entertainment. The campaign’s efforts to take those million pounds out of the ocean, though, will be undone in a depressingly short amount of time. To really be effective, this (or any) campaign must look at the broader picture of stopping plastic pollution at its source.
MrBeast is a household name to millions of young people thanks to his stunt videos that rack up an astounding amount of views. His video where he spent 50 hours buried alive was YouTube’s top trending video in 2021; it currently has a jaw-dropping 148 million views.
Part of MrBeast’s appeal has always been his do-gooder bent. Many of his elaborate challenges involve giving away enormous amounts of money at the end. (He once bought a literal island for $US800,000 (A$1,140,320) and gave it away to the winner of a series of challenges.) Polling by Insider shows he’s the most well-liked creator on YouTube. The Team Seas campaign follows a similar initiative MrBeast launched last year called Team Trees, which raised $US20 (A$29) million to plant 20 million trees. Both are reminiscent of other MrBeast-style stunts, except these ones are designed to get his viewership involved in a good cause.
But before the Team Seas campaign even began, it was a source of controversy with some scientists in the YouTuber community. That’s because it’s being done in partnership with the Ocean Cleanup, a group that has come under widespread criticism by scientists for its techniques to scoop up plastic from the open ocean. The Team Seas campaign is being used to fund the group’s river cleanup that relies on robots modelled heavily after preexisting trash wheels working in cities like Baltimore to passively clean trash from the mouths of rivers. Scientists say that one of the best ways to do ocean cleanup is to prevent the trash from going in in the first place, which machines like the Ocean Cleanup’s are very good at.
“We hope from the TeamSeas partnership to receive funding to raise 15 million pounds of trash from some of the most polluted rivers in the world,” Joost Dubois, the director of communications for the Ocean Cleanup, said in an email.
Still, Virginia Schutte, a science communicator with a PhD in ecology who runs a YouTube channel and TikTok, remembers opening an unlisted video pitching creators on getting involved with Team Seas ahead of the late October launch. Even before she hit play, she could guess who the partner cleaning up the trash would be — and a deep trepidation.
“I went to the video and was like, ‘oceans. I like oceans. Please don’t be the Ocean Cleanup,’” she said. “They said, ‘the Ocean Cleanup,’ and I was yelling at my phone, ‘No!’ I know [MrBeast’s] purpose is to do good. I was concerned that he may not know the controversial stuff about the Ocean Cleanup.”
In October, days before the official launch, Schutte and a group of other climate and science communicators were discussing their concerns about the campaign in a private Discord server. One of them invited Matt Fitzgerald, the campaign director for both Team Seas and Team Trees, to participate in the conversation. (Earther tried repeatedly to get in touch with Fitzgerald and the Team Seas and Team Trees press team to ask questions about the campaign, but they didn’t return any of our messages.)
“We are fully aware of the controversy surrounding the ocean work of The Ocean Cleanup,” Fitzgerald wrote in Discord chats shared with Earther, saying that although he himself was “extremely sceptical“ going into the project, the Ocean Cleanup was the only nonprofit doing river cleanup work at the Team Seas campaign price point of $US1 (A$1.43) for each pound of trash. When pressed about how the campaign might inadvertently promote the Ocean Cleanup’s work, Fitzgerald pointed out that the Team Seas imagery was “the dominant — often exclusive” brand for the campaign, meaning that people would mentally link the money they’d give to the Team Seas effort, not the Ocean Cleanup.
But the actual campaign materials are another story. The video released by the Team Seas campaign by Rober, which had nearly 21 million views in early December, focuses almost completely on the Ocean Cleanup’s robots. Those bots have the Ocean Cleanup’s logo prominently displayed, the video highlights the nonprofit’s “audacious goal to rid the ocean of all trash and plastic,” and Rober interviews Ocean Cleanup founder Boyan Slat, whose story of becoming inspired to clean up the ocean as a teenager has long been the calling card for much of the brand’s fundraising. (Slat does emphasise in the video that he hopes eventually his nonprofit “goes out of business” as people figure out how to stop producing so much plastic.)
“Glad to see Slat’s creations getting the recognition it deserves!” one comment on the video reads.
“Picking up 30 million pounds of trash out of the ocean is great, but I am concerned about the long-term legacy of a bunch of people who are just stepping into their advocacy selves thinking of the Ocean Cleanup as a go-to solution for pollution,” Schutte said.
Beyond the involvement of the Ocean Cleanup, the fundraising has led to some interesting partners. By all accounts, the Team Seas campaign is on track to exceed its goal of raising $US30 (A$43) million by January thanks to six-figure donations from the likes of YouTube and its CEO, as well as a hefty donation from the CEO of Shopify and contributions from a collection of NFT and crypto tokens.
The top donor list, however, also features Royal Caribbean. The cruise line has made a to-do about banning plastic straws and cutting down 60% of single-use plastics. But it also received a D+ from Friends of the Earth for its ships’ environmental standards. That includes getting an F in water quality compliance.
Another top donor is the Bikoff Foundation, which has, according to the Team Seas leaderboard, donated $US1 (A$1.43) million. The foundation is run by Jill Bikoff and her husband, J. Darius Bikoff, who made hundreds of millions after selling his company Energy Brands (the makers of Vitamin Water) to Coca-Cola. The bottled beverage industry is an enormous source of ocean plastic pollution, and Coca-Cola is the world’s top producer of plastic waste. Despite making big promises on recycling, the company has refused to set any target to stop using disposable plastic, and has actively lobbied behind-the-scenes against recycling initiatives. (Coca-Cola is also a sponsor of the Ocean Cleanup’s river work.)
It’s hard not to feel a pang of disappointment from what the Team Seas campaign could have been. Scientists say that while there are productive ways to clean ocean trash, totally ridding the ocean of garbage is basically impossible, and that any campaign that ignores the causes of plastic pollution misses the point. The Team Seas goal of 30 million pounds of trash may sound lofty, but it’s a drop in the bucket. An estimated 8 billion kilograms of trash are dumped in the ocean each year, translating to a rate of a little over 900,000 kilograms each hour. That means Team Seas’ cleanup will be undone in about 15 hours — about eight hours less than one of MrBeast’s earliest viral videos featuring him counting to 100,000. The rate of plastic entering the seas is set to triple over the coming decades if polluters aren’t stopped.
The Team Seas website includes a very thorough FAQ that explains some of the core causes of plastic pollution, documents how oil and gas companies are contributing to the problem. It also contextualizes the cleanup methods the campaign has chosen and explains that it ultimately hopes to inspire a larger movement to demand more permanent solutions. But many of the most popular videos in the campaign — essentially the public face — have none of that messaging. Neither MrBeast nor Rober’s official Team Seas videos mention any causes of plastic pollution, and they made no public requirements of creators who wanted to participate to do any education about the root causes of the problem or more effective ways to get involved.
Yet the need to cut off plastic at the source isn’t a hard one to communicate in video format. In a video criticising the Team Seas project, YouTuber Simon Clark filmed himself in a bathtub covered with plastic bottles; a hand reaches in to take a bottle away from him. “Thank you,” he tells the offscreen person. “By the way, could you do something about the people who are just adding the plastic in?” In response, the person throws even more trash onto him. The video goes on to discuss solutions as well as charities working on them right now that, Clark says, “would produce a far greater impact than just taking some plastic out of the oceans” if a campaign like Team Seas turned the spotlight on them.
A talented YouTuber like MrBeast, who has the attention of millions of subscribers who want to help fix problems, should have been able to figure out a fun way to convey messages about cutting down personal plastic waste, working on local recycling initiatives, or holding companies that continue to create plastic accountable. Doing so could make a huge difference in how his viewers think about plastic use moving forward, enacting long-lasting change rather than relying on flashy cleanups that, while important, obscure the bigger problem.
Perhaps this all seems too critical. After all, the methods showcased in the Team Seas campaign have been praised even by those dubious of larger-scale ocean cleanup efforts as crucial to keeping communities and beaches clean. MrBeast’s positive brand isn’t exactly the best format to attack big polluters like Coca-Cola, which itself runs one of the most popular brand channels on YouTube. And even though cleaning up 30 million pounds of trash will make next to no difference in the ocean, if watching MrBeast pick up plastic bottles on the beach can galvanize someone who wouldn’t otherwise care about pollution, that’s fantastic.
But the positive PR for MrBeast’s brand also shouldn’t be ignored. He received widespread accolades for his Team Trees campaign, which garnered donations from companies like Verizon and figureheads like Elon Musk and was the subject of a documentary; he has already appeared with Rober on Jimmy Kimmel to promote Team Seas. YouTube, which partially sponsored the initiative, is also benefiting from the positive attention focused on one of its native stars.
MrBeast has an entire channel devoted to philanthropy, and “charitable” stunts are a core part of his brand. That’s great given the myriad challenges the world faces, but hopefully he thinks about ways to convey how to solve them at the source moving forward, rather than just apply Band-Aids. With the world watching his every move, he has the rare opportunity to really make a difference if he does that.