Scientist: Media misrepresented plastics problem in our oceans


I suppose, given the quality of science reporting on most TV news stations and newspapers, this headline contains a certain element of "Duh." When hasn't a scientific concept been misrepresented through the media? This is a doozy, though, and it needs to be corrected. You're probably familiar with the idea of plastic floating around in giant patches—"twice the size of Texas" is a commonly cited size. From what I'd seen on TV and read on activist websites, I'd gotten the impression that there was some massive island of plastic chunks out there in the Pacific. And I'm sure a lot of you came to the same conclusion.

But that's not what the science describes.

Angel White, an assistant professor of biological oceanography at Oregon State University, reviewed the literature on the so-called North Pacific Garbage Patch, and traveled to the site. She says science and reality don't match public perception, here. And now she's trying to correct that misunderstanding. Why? Because the very real problems posed by plastic debris in the ocean are too important to be couched in easily-debunked hyperbole. Scientist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olsen has a great interview with White on his blog, The Benshi:

RO: Last week you issued a press release titled, "Oceanic 'garbage patch' not nearly as big as portrayed in media." What was your motivation for doing that?

AW:The motivation for the press release is that I went on this cruise to the North Pacific in 2008 where I thought I'd see a plastic patch. I was really kind of surprised when I didn't. So when I started putting together my latest talk and I looked at the degree of hyperbole in the media, I was just surprised that no one had said, "Ah, you know, it's not the size of Texas -- in fact, it's not even a patch."

RO: But you've now said it's only 1% the size of Texas -- don't you think that does a disservice to the public's understanding just as much as calling it a "Texas-sized patch" because it overly minimizes the problem?

AW: I think calling it "a patch" minimizes the problem. It's not a patch. Here's what I think are the three most important points. 1) Plastic is widespread in the global ocean (not just the North Pacific), 2) plastic is small in size and 3) dilute in nature. It's not a patch -- to say it's a patch of any kind gives a false impression.

On the other hand, there are people who have decided to use the word "patch" -- if you're using the word, I think of "a patch of grass" -- a cohesive patch. So then let's take the highest observed concentrations and move it into a single, cohesive patch. I'm sorry, in the North Pacific it adds up to less that 1% the size of Texas -- actually 0.20% to be precise.

It's not a patch. It's a "dilute soup." I think it's a very sad commentary on the state of the U.S. that you have to be made to think of an island of trash in the oceans before you can be convinced to change your day-to-day actions.

(Via Glenn Fleishman)

Image: Some rights reserved by poolie


  1. I’ve known this for a while.

    Go out to the “great garbage patch” and chances are you will not see a single piece of trash. They’ve trolled this area with superfine nets and most of the plastic particles are around a milimeter in size or less. It’s just that there’s a higher concentration in this area where the currents converge so they call it a “patch”.

    I know I too originally had the same mental image of an island of floating coke bottles and trashbags maybe inhabited by little hermit crabs or something.

  2. “But that’s not what the science describes”, should be amended to “But that’s not what one assistant professor of biological oceanography describes”.

    1. She’s basing this on a review of the literature, not solely on her own observations. That’s why I say “science”.

      She’s not saying “this is my research”, but rather “this is what lots of other people’s research says and it’s way off from what most Americans believe.”

      1. “Angel White, an assistant professor of biological oceanography at Oregon State University, reviewed the literature on the so-called North Pacific Garbage Patch, and traveled to the site.” <-- Her research was not just relying on data established by others.

  3. Just wanted to point out Angel White is an assistant professor at Oregon State University and not the University of Oregon, as stated above.

  4. >a very sad commentary on the state of the U.S.

    Are we the only country contributing to this n*texas patch where 0.002 < n < 2.0?

  5. my comment got cut off because I used a less than sign…

    Are we the only country contributing to this n*texas-sized patch where n is a coefficent somewhere between 0.002 and 2.0?

    Are we the only country contributing to both the publicity problem and the problem itself???

  6. 1% of Texas?

    Wusses, that’s only 0.004% of Alaska.

    Or 170% of Rhode Island.

    (what business do scientists have describing areas as portions of a state? it’s not like anyone has a real concept what “1% of Texas” is, we’re just trained to think Texas is big, and therefore anything compared to it is also big)

  7. why the concern with semantics and what defines a “patch”? Its irrelevant what “patch” means– or what “the size of Texas” means (note: what is the length of the British coast line?– it depends on how you wish to measure it). So its a real red herring to get caught up in this. On one level it is a “patch” and on one level it could be seen to have dispersed into one loose polluted substrate that, yes, is the “size of Texas”– you could assign measurement relativities other ways as well– so whats your point? The point is that the terms are merely shorthand to get people reading and learning about the actual impact, which will never be able to be boiled down into one specific user friendly sound byte by its very nature. I’d say spend more time discussing the thing itself and not parsing the semantics of what is never intended to be its definition,

  8. >I think it’s a very sad commentary on the state
    >of the U.S. that you have to be made to think of
    >an island of trash in the oceans before you can
    >be convinced to change your day-to-day actions.

    Trust me, the whole Pacific ocean could be one huge floating continent of trash and some people in the U.S. would do anything to change their day to day actions.

    This guy is trying to comfort himself and people like him so they can go about their wasteful lives with fake plastic piece of mind.

    1. > Trust me, the whole Pacific ocean could be one huge floating
      > continent of trash and some people in the U.S.
      > would do anything
      > to change their day to day actions.

      You mean I’ll be able to DRIVE to Hawaii????

  9. Yeah, this blog post does more disservice to the problem than the media did. First of all, most people still don’t know about this, so it’s not like the media did a very good job of informing (or misinforming, depending on your POV) the public. Most people I’ve spoken to have never heard of this, and they’re supposedly in the more “educated and literate” demographic.

    Second, all that professor is really saying is that it’s not LITERALLY a patch. Okay, thanks for clarifying that, Mister Literal. But it is most definitely a patch in any useful way- it’s a collection of plastic that doesn’t go anywhere due to currents, so it’s just swirling around and around like a clogged toilet bowl. No, it’s not wall-to-wall covered plastic as far as the eye can see, but the area of this patch is definitely larger than Texas and growing. The people that have been studying it have been taking notes for decades and can show you the “science” behind that claim.

    Third, just because you don’t SEE the plastic doesn’t mean it’s not there. This is the biggest sticking point here- that the plastic breaks down, but not into anything that resembles a natural compound. It’s still plastic, it’s still toxic, it’s just tiny now. Which means that jellyfish, bottomfeeders that eat plankton, swallow the plastic pellets instead. Then larger fish eat them, and so on, until it comes back to… us. The plastic doesn’t go away, it just goes away from the naked eye.

    In fact, if you read the article, our sharp-eyed assistant professor admits the same thing:

    “On one hand, these plastics may help remove toxins from the water,” she said. “On the other hand, these same toxin-laden particles may be ingested by fish and seabirds. Plastic clearly does not belong in the ocean.”

    Yeah, no shit. And by “help remove toxins from the water” White means that the plastic attracts toxins to itself, so the toxins congregate on the plastic pellets… which then get eaten by the wildlife. So they’re not exactly “removing toxins” from anything in any useful or healthy way, they’re simply collecting them for us to absorb more efficiently. Yum.

    Maggie, your blog post is committing the exact thing you accuse the media of- misrepresenting the actual problem. If your “takeaway” is to tell us the problem isn’t as bad as it looks, you’re nuts. If anything, it’s worse- the media has barely given it the attention it deserves, and we have no way to really track where all the plastic pellets are going and how much they are affecting everything they end up in… but it doesn’t take an assistant professor to realize our continued use of plastic is suicidal and insane.

    Unless you’re arguing that we should continue to produce and use as much plastic as we do, this blog posting is stupid and destructive.

    1. I think you’re misunderstanding what the point of this post is.

      I don’t think Maggie is saying “the problem isn’t that bad so keep chucking your Coke bottle in the ocean”. I don’t think any blogger on Boing Boing has ever advocating anything even close to that.

      What she’s saying is the media has misrepresented the problem in how they describe it; but that doesn’t negate the problem. Blowing the problem out of proportion–making it sound like this garbage patch is a man-made floating continent of solid refuse–is a big problem. All it would take is some guy with a video camera to go out there, get some shots, and make a documentary for Coca Cola or some other corporation saying that no “garbage patch the size of Texas” exists and so it’s totally ok to drink as much Coke as you want and not feel bad about the environment. Corporations will pay good money to get their product sold, and if people feel guilty or bad about plastic bottles, that’s lost sales. And if people are perceiving this as a solid mass due to misused hyperbole by the media, that could be easily disproven; remember the issues with Climate Change and the hacked e-mails that supposedly showed it was a sham (but in fact did no such thing)? A lot of people still don’t trust Climatologists because of that.

      By clarifying what the term “patch the size of Texas” means, and by clarifying what exactly they’re talking about and why it’s an issue, this greatly helps people understand and makes it that much harder for someone to ruin people’s trust or belief in scientific findings and data.

      This post clarifies what “garbage patch” means. She’s not saying “it doesn’t have any impact” or “this is your free pass to litter”.

      (I used a lot of long sentences. Sorry about that.)

      1. I understand the clarification, but it’s an incredibly minor one, really. The patch is definitely at least as large as Texas- all this person is doing is clarifying that it’s not a SOLID patch of visible plastic. But it is definitely a patch of that size, and if you stop looking with your eyes and look, instead, at the science, you’ll find that the water is very much contaminated with plastic particles, they’ve just broken down to small enough pieces not to get noticed. So to make a big announcement on boing boing about how the media misrepresented plastics is just not true. It’s disingenuous and counter-productive. Your example of the hacked climate-change emails is exactly my point- Maggie is sort of doing the same thing here- calling attention with a big headline to something that boing boing readers will now think, if they don’t stop to read the article in detail, exactly what people thought about climate change after those emails: “oh, apparently that plastic problem isn’t such a big problem.” But it is, and it wasn’t in any way misrepresented; it’s only semantics that have been corrected, and in the end that’s a pointless and dangerous thing to make a big deal out of.

        The problem is pretty much what the public thought it was, except that the plastic is more invisible than visible. It’s still there, it’s still that size, and it’s still a big problem. If Maggie really wants to “get the facts straight” then her blog post should read “Plastic Ocean Patch Is Actually Not Visible to the Naked Eye Like Some of Us Thought, But Still Very Much There and Growing.” She basically found an obscure little news entry in some University blog about what an assistant professor had to say and reposted it with the emphasis that “This is a doozy, though, and it needs to be corrected.” Talk about misrepresentation. Slow news day, apparently.

        The actual issue is not a doozy and doesn’t really need to be corrected. It can be explained a little clearer perhaps, but it is, to anyone who has enough curiosity to do something as simple as a google search. Straight from wikipedia, even:

        “Despite its size and density, the patch is not visible from satellite photography since it primarily consists of suspended particulates in the upper water column. Since plastics break down to ever smaller polymers, concentrations of submerged particles are not visible from space, nor do they appear as a continuous debris field. Instead, the patch is defined as an area in which the mass of plastic debris in the upper water column is significantly higher than average.”

        I, too, think the news media is pretty much a big bag of useless, overhyped shit, but this is more a case of someone wanting to make a mountain out of a molehill because it makes for a cool news twist than anything else.

      2. Tim,

        You are correct.

        This is still an important issue. And the interview with White makes that clear. She thinks plastics in the ocean are a problem. As do I.

        But calling out media hyperbole is more than just “making a mountain out of a molehill because it makes for a cool news twist.” If anything, this is kind of a bland story critiquing other people’s desire to create a cool news twist & heading off attempts to discredit the entire science of plastic pollution by “exposing” a “secret evil liberal scientists don’t want you to know!” Or some such.

        This is more than semantics. As I say in the post, the actual problems caused by plastics in the ocean are too important to be obscured by easily-debunked hyperbole.

        1. Maggie, I’m really not sure where you’re coming from on this one. Let’s google “garbage patch” in google news:

          What do we see? A ton of news sites now picking up on this “late-breaking story” that the garbage patch was overhyped. Since most people don’t go beyond the headlines, the now-common-as-of-this-week perception is that plastic isn’t really that big of a problem. Okay, so you and Angela never quite said that- but you led Americans to believe that with your headlines. Actually, Angela didn’t do that, you and other media reporters did. More frustratingly is that all the articles I’ve perused so far admit- somewhere deep in the article- that the problem is actually still there. So the only real triumph our assistant professor has achieved is made everyone realize that the plastic in the ocean is not, as some people (I don’t know who, but some people, apparently) thought, a big, visible sheet of floating plastic.

          So where was the original media hyperbole that you are calling out? I don’t see it. I’m not speaking out of an emotional reaction to wanting to further my cause; I have yet to see anything more than a token attempt by the media at truly educating the public on any environmental issues. How can you claim otherwise? How can you honestly “report” this new finding under such a guise? Maybe someone, somewhere exaggerated their description, but I’ve never read any reports that were in any way exaggerated. I never thought it was a wall-to-wall plastic dump, and any pictures I’ve ever seen just show a lot of water with some plastic floating in it. If we all agree the problem is just as bad as we thought, and your only point is to clarify what is actually visible if you go to the ocean and see for yourself, how is this media hyperbole? Seriously?

          1. If you Google “2009 garbage patch” you get a whole ‘nother set of results. One of the first links is “Oprah Shines Light On Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. There’s a video, and a link to a story on that says:

            Currently, scientists believe the world’s largest garbage dump isn’t on land…it’s in the Pacific Ocean. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch stretches from the coast of California to Japan, and it’s estimated to be twice the size of Texas. “This is the most shocking thing I have seen,” Oprah says.

            In some places, the floating debris—estimated to be about 90 percent plastic—goes 90 feet deep…

            Terms like “garbage dump”, “floating debris”, and “90 feet deep” definitely do not conjure up images of macroscopic plastic particles.Not to mention the photo of floating garbage that accompanies the article. This sort of misleading hyperbole does exist, and it exists in very public places.

          2. “Terms like “garbage dump”, “floating debris”, and “90 feet deep” definitely do not conjure up images of macroscopic plastic particles.”

            Maybe not, but they’re still accurate descriptions of what’s out there, as is “size of Texas”. It’s certainly remains a very “shocking” thing we’ve created, so even Oprah’s seemingly-melodramatic description isn’t really hyperbole. My point is that the problem is just as big and scary and real as we thought- the only difference is one of clarification. The problem isn’t visible from the surface of the ocean, that’s all, and some of us thought it was. Is that really worth creating a whole new 2011 hyperbolic reaction? Now the public is even more misinformed than they were before this “news break.” In the hopes of being fair and accurate, Maggie et al have made things less fair and accurate. I’m not sure how that’s good for anyone.

        2. But Maggie, you aren’t ‘calling out media hyperbole’ you are helping to create it.

          From the article:
          Recent research by scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution found that the amount of plastic, at least in the Atlantic Ocean, hasn’t increased since the mid-1980s – despite greater production and consumption of materials made from plastic, she pointed out.

          From the WHOI paper:
          One surprising finding is that the concentration of floating plastic debris has not increased during the 22-year period of the study, despite the fact that the plastic disposal has increased substantially. The whereabouts of the “missing plastic” is unknown.

          Your friend suggests that the amount of plastic has not increased in the Atlantic, but that is not supported by the science or by the paper she references. How is this helpful? What exactly is she calling out?

          Her whole point (and by extension yours) is one of semantics and hyperbole.

  10. Correction- that last sentence should have read “If you’re arguing that…”

    And I realize Angel is a woman, not a man.

    Thank you.

  11. “OSU, not UO. Beaver, not Duck.”

    I was about to say the same thing. Ouch, because as an Oregon native, I promise you, that’s a big difference. You’ve mistaken the hippy school for the science school.

  12. I can’t say I’m surprised in the least that the most even-handed accounts of the pollution are being pigeon-holed into the distracting right/left pro/con paradigm.

  13. It is a patch in the sense of a specific area or region. It is larger than Texas. It is an area of high concentration of plastics on the surface of the ocean.

    The part of what Angel White is saying that is true is that it is diffuse, not generally visible to the eye, and not a giant island structure of large plastic objects.

    This interview clarifies some points and confuses others.

  14. It seems at some point reports moved path to refer “garbage” rather than “ocean”. The lit. moved from “patch of ocean the size of…” to “a garbae/plastic patch the size of…”.

    Somehow I think this can be traced back to our media consumption habbits. Good thing we have the odd scientist and science-reporting-crusader out there to set the records straight.

  15. Sorry, to clarify, in the link posted White states “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.”

    That area is not in the Gyre where the real problem is concentrated, circling around and around with nowhere to land. Try trawling around the Hawaiian chain of islands and you’ll pull up plenty of plastic.

  16. “I’d gotten the impression that there was some massive island of plastic”

    Who said that? I’ve never heard of it being described that way.
    I’ve seen footage of a boat in it, and you basically don’t see it all floating on the surface but a scoop of a net reveals a lot of tiny fragments.

  17. Ah, okay. So it’s nothing to worry about. That’s super! And the millimeter sized bits, which get to be that size via the sun’s breaking them down, and smaller even still—they’re not nearly as big a problem either, I’m sure, as they’ve been made out to be. And the tiniest bits that get interpreted by our bodies to be fucked up hormones—I’m sure that’s been blown all out of proportion as well.

    Maybe we shouldn’t think about it as a garbage patch. Maybe we should think of it as a garbage continent, home to scary garbage beings that intend to destroy us and our garbage-producing way of life, that’s 200 times the size of Texas. Or a giant garbage asteroid that’s about to smash into Earth.

    Wow. Thanks for the info, lady. Let me go back to ingesting plastic dust now, please.

    1. Read the interview & read my post. Nobody is making the argument that plastics in the ocean aren’t a problem.

  18. Sure, and next you’ll be telling me that vegetable patches aren’t a solid cube of carrots.

    Maybe I’ve culled the low quality news sources out of my reading habits, but whenever I’ve seen a paragraph or more devoted to the patch, it mentions “you can’t see the plastic, it’s just tons of microscopic particles”. I’m sure there’s the occasional outright misrepresentation, but for the most part this just seems to be news articles not explicitly stating the invisible nature of the patch.

    So what’s the alternative term we’re supposed to reference the patch by? Something no longer than “Texas-sized plastic patch in the Pacific”. If you’re going to write up a full treatment you should go into the details of what its made out of, how fast its growing, why it’s there. But what’s the 6 word moniker we should use to reference it? Because replacing a few words with a paragraph we’re supposed to recite would just limit the discussion of the topic.

    1. Eveyone should read this, because it’s right. A “patch” is just that – an area that contrasts with the whole. It means that in the greater geometry, there exists an area that is different.

      As it stands, this “different” piece is full of crap that can effect us and is continuing to grow unchecked.

  19. In the book “Adrift” about being in a life raft for months, one major sign that told him he was nearing land was drifting into huge rafts of seaweed mixed with plastic garbage to the east of the carribean islands.

  20. “I think it’s a very sad commentary on the state of the U.S. that you have to be made to think of an island of trash in the oceans before you can be convinced to change your day-to-day actions.”

    No, it’s most certainly NOT a sad commentary. More like behavioral reality. People (worldwide) are wired to be motivated by things that are immediate and exist in the present. We’re much more likely to make a decision based on a short-term, nearby problem or benefit than a long-term, out of sight one.

    By dramatizing the problem, it makes people more likely to comprehend it and be horrified. A floating patch of plastic the size of Texas frames the problem in a way most Americans can understand. A “dilute soup” of tiny plastic particles you can’t really see is harder to picture and easier to ignore.

  21. Garbage patch is catchier and easier to visualize than gyre, and also an easier concept than, shudder, photodegradation, which is the real problem, not the mass of plastics, but their teeeeny tiiiny photodegraded particles. Yikes! It’s a case of “print the legend,” no?

  22. 4+ years ago when I first heard of the garbage patch, my mind pictured a trash dump scene floating in the ocean. 3 minutes of internet searches later and I was able to understand the patch for what it really is.

    I don’t see what the big deal is. There is floating trash out there, it is saturated with plasctic of all sizes, and there is a defined area of high concentration- a “patch”. It’s the readers fault for not digging deeper than the headline.

    The Professor failed in an attempt to provide fresh “news”, but she did succeed in getting her name in the press! :)

    1. I did the same thing. I investigated and realized that the headline or the lede was sorta blowing it out of proportion. Now you and I can discuss this problem since we share the same cognitive idea of what the problem is. The sensationalist media take of this science means that a malignant idea or symbol is now out in the media and the memesphere so to speak.

      “I’d gotten the impression that there was some massive island of plastic”

      That’s sort of a secondary or maybe tertiary misunderstanding of the original idea caused by sensationalizing the issue. And if someone did go out there with a video camera, they could come away with a nice concrete and effective rebuttal to that idea. They could Michael Moore the issue.

      The real problem, which is only somewhat touched up on here, is that “Environmental Advocates” do a disservice to the discussion because they are allowing things to be misrepresented and when people find out that these misrepresentations of how things are supposed to be are shown to be wrong, they get very angry and skeptical.

      1. “I investigated and realized that the headline or the lede was sorta blowing it out of proportion.”

        Oh yeah that’s easy enough to say, for some body that doesn’t rely upon delicate gills to breathe….

        …but maybe you don’t care about what lives out of sight

        in the deep

        or how they do that

  23. Professors at Yale are now stating that while Easter does exist, the Easter Bunny may not actually be a bunny at all!

  24. This idea of a floating plastic island is incredibly pervasive. I know people who will say, point blank, “show me the pictures of the island or there’s nothing there.” Since no one can show them the pictures, they think it’s an environmentalist lie… and use that as support that there’s no such thing as climate change.

    Well, media, you got your page hits. Congrats.

  25. Well crap there goes my master plan to start my own country…

    I was gonna call it Watery Plastic Land and our main export was to be snarkiness.

  26. Yay Maggie! I remember reading about this about a year ago on BB and being sad to see such blatant pseudoscience. I first read about this in “The World Without Us” or whatever that book was called. It had many dubious scientific claims, but I remember that one because it FREAKED me out! But then Skeptoid did a great episode about it. You can listen to it here:

  27. I don’t think any blogger on Boing Boing has ever advocating anything even close to that.

    Well, maybe one guest blogger.

    1. Yeah, that was pretty much my impression too when I listened to stories about it in the past.

      It is interesting to find out that’s not the case, but that it is still equally awful.

  28. To fully understand this, you have to realize that this interview with Angel White was conducted by Randy Olsen, a former scientist turned documentary filmmaker/author, who believes that scientists are horrible public communicators who need to learn communication skills from him (the theme of his book “Don’t Be Such A Scientist”). I’m not sure how common the misconception of the gyre as a solid island is among the general public. It sounds like from the comments here it maybe isn’t all that common, which is good. Maybe scientists aren’t such bad communicators after all.

  29. Pedants with science degrees, a dangerous mix.

    She actually makes the PR sound more authentic and descriptive than the science.

  30. It’s also misleading to think the problem is only plastic. It’s not like we filter our waste and only dump the plastic in the ocean. We only see the bits that float.

    We need to stop dumping so much stuff of all kinds into the ocean.

  31. I am surprised no one has yet mentioned the 5 Gyres organization that’s been out in the middle of several ocean garbage gyres, sampling and logging the messes firsthand. The 5 Gyres blog has a specific entry that tries to spell out why plastics (at whichever concentration) in the ocean are so problematic:

    I imagine that in the world of the future where petroleum is too expensive to make disposable plastics, trash that contains petroleum in it will be of greater value: giant solar-powered floating factories would siphon and sift any of the plastics still afloat, turning it all into fuel or material.

    Or, um, not.

  32. I watched a series of documentary videos a couple years ago, back during one of the cycles where this was bigger news. The people they were following thought it was a literal patch too, but the videos actually did a great job of explaining what it really was (a zone of higher concentration of suspended plastic particulate matter). They showed shots of the water, interviews with the scientists (it was a science cruise), and video of them inspecting water samples.

    I don’t remember what it was called, but it’ll probably turn up searching for “north pacific gyre.” I recommend at least a skim through.

  33. Uh, I don’t see any evidence for the title claim: “media misrepresented plastics problem in our oceans.”

    The press release states:

    The studies have shown is that if you look at the actual area of the plastic itself, rather than the entire North Pacific subtropical gyre, the hypothetically “cohesive” plastic patch is actually less than 1 percent of 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.”

    The implication of this, and the blog post, is that the problem is misrepresented because the size of the area “with the highest concentrations” of plastics “ever reported by scientist” is smaller than the size of the N Pacific gyre as a whole. That seems like a pretty strict criteria for concern. What if, on average, the concentration of plastics throughout the whole gyre is 1/100 of the maximum value. Is that problematic? We have no idea based on any evidence presented.

    And perhaps I’m an exception, but I’ve never been under the impression from reading media reports that the the gyre of marine litter in the N Pacific is made up of “chunks of plastic” visible to the naked eye. The fact that the plastic consists of sub-micrometer particles is what’s problematic with regards to sea-life. I remember an NPR report not long ago in which some environmental groups suggested the plastic microparticles in facial exfoliants and skin creams actually be banned because they can disrupt the respiratory and digestive function of marine creatures.

    So as much as I enjoy reading your posts on science, I really don’t see any evidence discussed here that this as a problem that’s been misrepresented or overhyped at all.

  34. “I think it’s a very sad commentary on the state of the U.S. that you have to be made to think of an island of trash in the oceans before you can be convinced to change your day-to-day actions.”

    Yeah, it’s also sad when certain people downplay big problems so the public can blissfully continue trashing the planet. I wonder how much they were paid to document this “important” finding.

  35. There is a conservitive gun forum that I cruise through once in a while to get taste of where a lot of this misrepresentation comes from. The site itself is pseudo-notrodomus when it comes to how Neocons percieve a lot of what the MSM touts as “Science”. Its like reading the cliff notes before Glen Beck’s show airs.

    Being an offshore sailor, this particular subject bothers the hell out of me. So low and behold it took every ounce of energy not to get reeled into a 100 page thread about how the “Texas sized Garbage Patch” was a “Hoax” as according to Fox News.

    What is alarming is that just about everything that has any negative Environmental impact is grouped with one of Al Gores presentations with a lot of these people. There have been physical samples taken from the pacific gyres that without any question show that this indeed a serious problem. That is not enough of course, because its environmental, because it is the result of man, it must be a hoax.

    For the simple minded, the fact that there is not a visible “Floating Island” of garbage was enough to cast doubt on the existence of any plastic in the ocean whatsoever. It is remarkably similar to how Fox and Friends can disprove the entirety of global warming by the fact that there was a two day Blizzard in [insert major US city recently], in other words, it is ridiculous.

    I have been a week’s sail offshore and seen things that belong on the shelves of home depot. It doesn’t take a scientist to understand that most of the stuff sits right below the surface and erodes into goop or other things that do not resemble a derelict garbage city from Waterworld.

    Just as all of Global warming was debunked due to some questionable banter between a few scientist over emails, I guess the entirety of human civilization can now rest easy as the millions of tons of plastic waste are not actually roaming around our oceans, but are actually whisked away to make Legos right?

  36. >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;
    What does that even mean?

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