Oceanic Garbage Patch Blown out of Proportion by Media

Unsurprisingly, not every statistic you read or hear of in the media correct. According to assistant professor of oceanography at Oregon State University, Angelicque “Angel” White, one such statistic you should definitely think twice about is anything referring to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a gyre of marine litter which is located in the ocean between America and Japan, and hyperbolic estimates have placed the size of the garbage patch as twice the size of Texas, deeper than the Golden Gate Bridge is tall, and suggested that there is more plastic in the oceans than there is plankton.

According to White, none of this is even close to being true.

“There is no doubt that the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans is troubling, but this kind of exaggeration undermines the credibility of scientists,” White said. “We have data that allow us to make reasonable estimates; we don’t need the hyperbole. Given the observed concentration of plastic in the North Pacific, it is simply inaccurate to state that plastic outweighs plankton, or that we have observed an exponential increase in plastic.”

White is one of the few scientists to have actually visited the garbage patch with a view to understand the abundance of the plastic materials and the effect that they have on the microbial communities around them.

The studies have shown that by actually looking at the area of the plastic itself, rather than the entire North Pacific subtropical gyre which drags all the plastic to this central spot, the actual amount of plastic is less than 1 percent the geographic size of Texas.

“The amount of plastic out there isn’t trivial,” White said. “But using the highest concentrations ever reported by scientists produces a patch that is a small fraction of the state of Texas, not twice the size.”

Additionally, recent research out of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has found that the amount of plastic in the Atlantic Ocean has not increased since the mid-1980s, despite obvious increases in production and consumption of material that would be found in the garbage patch.

“Are we doing a better job of preventing plastics from getting into the ocean?” White said. “Is more plastic sinking out of the surface waters? Or is it being more efficiently broken down? We just don’t know. But the data on hand simply do not suggest that ‘plastic patches’ have increased in size. This is certainly an unexpected conclusion, but it may in part reflect the high spatial and temporal variability of plastic concentrations in the ocean and the limited number of samples that have been collected.”

White has made a great effort to bridge the gap between media hyperbole and the facts, while growing distressed at the lack of facts being offered. She believes that there is a chance to remove the plastic from the ocean, but that there are a lot of factors yet to be focused upon, specifically how to remove the plastics from the ocean without accidentally removing phytoplankton, zooplankton, and small surface-dwelling aquatic creatures.

“These small organisms are the heartbeat of the ocean,” she said. “They are the foundation of healthy ocean food chains and immensely more abundant than plastic debris.”

Other findings which White believes should be part of the public dialogue surrounding the Great Atlantic Garbage Patch include;

Calculations show that the amount of energy it would take to remove plastics from the ocean is roughly 250 times the mass of the plastic itself;

Plastic also covers the ocean floor, particularly offshore of large population centers. A recent survey from the state of California found that 3 percent of the southern California Bight’s ocean floor was covered with plastic – roughly half the amount of ocean floor covered by lost fishing gear in the same location. But little, overall, is known about how much plastic has accumulated at the bottom of the ocean, and how far offshore this debris field extends;

It is a common misperception that you can see or quantify plastic from space. There are no tropical plastic islands out there and, in fact, most of the plastic isn’t even visible from the deck of a boat;

There are areas of the ocean largely unpolluted by plastic. A recent trawl White conducted in a remote section of water between Easter Island and Chile pulled in no plastic at all.

“If there is a takeaway message, it’s that we should consider it good news that the ‘garbage patch’ doesn’t seem to be as bad as advertised,” White said, “but since it would be prohibitively costly to remove the plastic, we need to focus our efforts on preventing more trash from fouling our oceans in the first place.”

Source: Oregon State University

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