Ocean Patch Claims Are 99.5% Garbage
by Jack Dini, Canada Free Press, July 17, 2014
You’ve heard about a giant patch of garbage supposedly floating out in the Pacific, yet another unmistakable sign of the scourge that man is to the planet.
Here are some examples of the scare:
- “Garbage mass is growing in the Pacific”, npr.org, March 26, 2008- The huge plastic garbage mass—nearly twice the size of Texas—is halfway between Hawaii and Los Angeles.
- Kathy Marks, “The world’s rubbish dump: a tip that stretches from Hawaii to Japan,” The Independent, February 5, 2008.- A ‘plastic soup’ of waste floating in the Pacific Ocean is growing at an alarming rate and now covers an area twice the size of the continental United States, scientists have said.
- Thomas M. Kostigen, “Better planet the world’s largest dump: the great Pacific garbage patch,” Discover Magazine, July 2008. - The sprawl may cover an area as much as one and a half times the size of the Untied States and to a depth of 100 feet, if not deeper.
It turns out that it’s all a huge exaggeration.
Recent research reports the amount of plastic floating in the oceans has been dramatically exaggerated.
The new work comes from results of an around-the-world cruise by a research ship that towed a mesh net at 141 sites, as well as other studies. Researchers estimated that the total amount of floating plastic debris in the open oceans at 7,000 to 35,000 tons. (1)
Andres Cozar of the University of Cadiz in Spain, an author of the study, said that’s a lot less than the 1 million tons he had extrapolated from data reaching back to the 1970s. (2)
A similar result was published in 2011. Oregon State University (OSU) studies showed that if you looked at the actual area of the plastic itself, rather than the entire North Pacific subtropical gyre, the hypothetically ‘cohesive’ plastic patch was actually less than 1 percent of the geographic size of Texas. Pierre Gosselin observes, “Simple mathematics tells us that the media exaggerated the patch size by a factor of more than 200.” (3)
What’s more, the amount of plastic in the ocean does not appear to be growing, and has apparently stabilized since the mid-1980s. OSU scientist Angel White said this doesn’t mean we should ignore the problem. “There is not 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. (4)
White adds that whatever the size of the garbage patch, there’s too much plastic and what scientists don’t know is how much is sinking below the surface. She says she also learned that large colonies of photosynthetic microbes are using the plastic pieces to live on. (5)
Back to the recent work of Cozar who made the original estimate he has now reduced noticeably.
Cozar’s team didn’t find country-size islands of plastic bags strangling baby birds and sea turtles. They found ‘microplastics.’ What people think of as a dump doesn’t look like floating junk. Instead, ocean current ‘convergent zones’ are swirling with flecks of plastic—like a snow globe half a minute after shaking—and with considerably less plastic trash. (6)
Yet many media outlets chose to look at this new result in a negative fashion. Some examples:
- Angus Chen, “Ninety-nine percent of the ocean’s plastic is missing,” news, sciencemag.org, June 30, 2014- Millions of tons, that’s how much plastic should be floating in the world’s oceans, given our ubiquitous use of the stuff. But a new study finds that 99% of this plastic is missing. One disturbing possibility: fish are eating it. Instead of the millions of tons scientists has expected, the researchers calculated the global load of ocean plastic to be about only 40,000 tons at most.—Apparently Angus Chen didn’t read enough to realize that the original estimate was just that, an estimate, and was made by the very same researcher who reported the new, much lesser amounts. How can 99% be missing if it wasn’t there in the first place?
- “88% of the world’s oceans covered by plastic junk-study,” rt.com/news, July 1, 2014—At least 88 percent of the surface of the world’s open oceans is polluted by plastic debris, says a new scientific report. The findings raise large concerns of the safety of marine life and how this ocean litter may affect food chains.
So there you have it. When the person who originally started the scare now admits that he was way off (7,000 to 35,000 tons versus 1 million tons), I take this as a positive note. Yet, many in the media are still wondering where the other 99.5% went. The answer- it couldn’t have gone anywhere since it never was there.
Not that plastic in the oceans is a good thing, but its’ looking to be less of a peril to the planet than once thought.
Jack Dini, Livermore, CA, writes a monthly column on science and environmental issues for Plating & Surface Finishing and also writes for other publications. He is the author of Challenging Environmental Mythology (2003). Jack can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Andres Cozar et al., “Plastic debris in the open ocean,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” doi:10.1073/pnas.1314705111, June 25, 2014
- Malcolm Ritter, “Ocean plastic pollution may be less than expected,”usatoday.com, June 30, 2014
- Pierre Gosselin, “The great Pacific garbage patch turns out to be ‘grossly exaggerated’ by a factor of more than 200,” notrickszone.com, January 5, 2011
- Todd Myers, Eco-Fads, (Seattle WA, Washington Policy Center, 2011), 205
- Kristian Foden-Vencil, “Pacific’s giant plastic island may be a marine myth,” Oregon Public Broadcasting, January 5, 2011
- Debra J. Saunders, “Garbage-patch tale as flimsy as a single-use plastic bag,”San Francisco Chronicle, July 2, 2014