The size of the “Great Garbage Patch” floating somewhere between California and Japan is much smaller than portrayed in the media.
According to an Oregon State University scientist and assistant professor, Angelicque White, the patch is not bigger than the state of Texas; there is not more plastic in the ocean than plankton; and the patch has not been growing tenfold every decade since the 1950s. White says that “this kind of exaggeration undermines the credibility of scientists.”
White participated in an expedition funded by C-MORE, the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education, that was one of the only expeditions aimed solely at understanding the abundance and impact of plastic on microbial communities.
“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.”
The studies show that when you look at the actual area of plastic itself, instead of the North Pacific subtropical gyre, the size of the plastic patch is less than one percent of the size of Texas.
Research by scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute found that the amount of plastic in the Atlantic ocean has not increased since the mid-1980s even though we produce and consume more materials made from plastic.
The questions remain, “are we doing a better job of preventing plastics from getting into the ocean? Is more plastic sinking out of the surface waters? Or is it being more efficiently broken down?” White said. “But the data on hand simply do not suggest that ‘plastic patches’ have increased in size.”
Another recent claim that the plastic patch is as deep as the Golden Gate Bridge is tall is completely unfound as “most plastics either sink or float. Plastic isn’t likely to be evenly distributed through the top 100 feet of the water column,” White said.
White says that there is growing interest in removing plastic from the ocean, but it would be difficult, if not impossible, to do so without accidentally removing phytoplankton, zooplankton and other important small organisms. Some of these organisms actually thrive on plastic particles. But, while it is beneficial to some organisms, it is toxic to many.
There are several other important findings that White believes should be known to the public.
- Calculations show that the amount of energy it would take to remove the plastic from the ocean would be about 250 times the mass of the plastic itself;
- Plastic also covers the ocean floor, especially around largely populated centers. A recent survey by the state of California found that three percent of the southern California Bight’s ocean floor is covered with plastic. Overall, little is known about how much plastic has accumulated at the bottom of the ocean;
- The “great garbage patch” cannot be seen from space. There are no tropical plastic islands and most of the plastic can’t even be seen from the deck of a boat;
- There are areas of the ocean that are largely unpolluted by plastic. White recently conducted a trawl between Easter Island and Chile and did not pull in a single piece of plastic.
Other problems with plastic inlcude that it may act as a vector for introducing new invasive species into sensitive habitats.
“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.”
Copyright © 2011 by Marine Science Today, a publication of OceanLines LLC