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)

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