Are we “choking the ocean with plastic”? Tracing creation of a myth.

Summary: Many of the scary stories of our time result from interactions between actual science, activist scientists, and clickbait-seeking journalists. “We’re choking the ocean with plastic” is one such tale, showing how real problems become masked by myths. This leaves us divided and unable to respond to our problems, as neither Left nor Right clearly see the world. Meanwhile, overfishing, pollution, and habitat destruction are wrecking the oceans.

Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The first recorded sighting of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was by oceanographer Charles J. Moore (heir to oil wealth, now an environmental activist) when sailing home after a race in 1999. Here is how he describes it (from “Trashed”, Natural History, Nov 2003). Too bad he did not bring a camera to record it!

“Day after day, Alguita was the only vehicle on a highway without landmarks, stretching from horizon to horizon. Yet as I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic.

“It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments. Months later, after I discussed what I had seen with the oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, perhaps the world’s leading expert on flotsam, he began referring to the area as the “eastern garbage patch.” But “patch” doesn’t begin to convey the reality. Ebbesmeyer has estimated that the area, nearly covered with floating plastic debris, is roughly the size of Texas.”

Much of this seems odd. There are patches of debris, but no such masses of plastic “as far as the eye can see”. There is much plastic, but most is barely visible to the eye — and lies under the surface.

Like all good stories, it grew over time. From “Choking the Oceans with Plastic” — his 2014 op-ed in the New York Times: “We even came upon a floating island bolstered by dozens of plastic buoys used in oyster aquaculture that had solid areas you could walk on.” Again no photo of the floating island, let alone of him walking on it.

Moore becomes somewhat more accurate when confronted by a knowledgeable journalist, such as Suzanne Bohan in this 2011 article: “It’s not something you can walk on, or see from a satellite. We’ve always tried to dispel that fact,” Or in this quote of him from The Independent: “The original idea that people had was that it was an island of plastic garbage that you could almost walk on. It is not quite like that. It is almost like a plastic soup. It is endless for an area that is maybe twice the size as continental United States.”

Great Pacific Garbage Patch
From the San Jose Mercury News, 3 August 2009.

It is as large as Texas. Or the continental US. Or twice that!

“Estimates of size range from 700,000 square kilometres (270,000 sq mi) (about the size of Texas) to more than 15,000,000 square kilometres (5,800,000 sq mi) (0.41% to 8.1% of the size of the Pacific Ocean), or, in some media reports, up to “twice the size of the continental United States”.”

Wikipedia entry about The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

From a 2008 interview of Charles Moore  by NPR, “Garbage Mass Is Growing in the Pacific“: “If something isn’t done, he says, the island will increase in size by a factor of ten every two to three years — making in time something more akin to an actual, solid island.” He predicted that it would grow 20x – 30x from 2008 to now.

Journalists love these stories, printing lurid descriptions of the rapidly growing Texas-sized (or twice-Texas-sized) garbage patches (e.g., National Geographic, San Jose Mercury News, The Guardian, New York Times). Unfortunately scientists ruined the fun, as in this by NOAA:  “How Big Is the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”? Science vs. Myth” (7 Feb 2013)…

“While everything may be bigger in Texas, some reports about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” would lead you to believe that this marine mass of plastic is bigger than Texas — maybe twice as big as the Lone Star State, or even twice as big as the continental U.S. … For the record, no scientifically sound estimates exist for the size or mass of these garbage patches.”

That conclusion rests on a firm foundation of studies such as this in Science (2010), this in PNAS (July 2014; summary here), and this in Science (Feb 2015; ungated copy here). For more cold water on the fun see this summary of the research by Angelicque White (asst prof of oceanography at Oregon State).

That NOAA article says something else of interest about this myth, discussing articles by Carey Morishige of NOAA’s Marine Debris Program

“(1)  There is no “garbage patch,” a name which conjures images of a floating landfill in the middle of the ocean, with miles of bobbing plastic bottles and rogue yogurt cups. … While it’s true that these areas have a higher concentration of plastic than other parts of the ocean, much of the debris found in these areas are small bits of plastic (microplastics) that are suspended throughout the water column. A comparison I like to use is that the debris is more like flecks of pepper floating throughout a bowl of soup, rather than a skim of fat that accumulates (or sits) on the surface.

“(2)  There are many “garbage patches,” and by that, we mean that trash congregates to various degrees in numerous parts of the Pacific and the rest of the ocean. These natural gathering points appear where rotating currents, winds, and other ocean features converge to accumulate marine debris, as well as plankton, seaweed, and other sea life.”

But we have photographs!

Ripley's photo of the Pacific Garbage Patch, 26 July 2015

Activists helped propagate the story by providing photographs of the Garbage Patch, usually photos of coastal areas (not the deep ocean) — often after a storm or other event washed debris from shore. The above photo was taken in Wakuya after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake. The photo at the top is explained in “Lies You’ve Been Told About the Pacific Garbage Patch” by Annalee Newitz at iO9, May 2012.

“You’ve probably heard of the ‘Pacific garbage patch,’ also called the ‘trash vortex.’ It’s a region of the North Pacific ocean where the northern jet stream and the southern trade winds, moving opposite directions, create a vast, gently circling region of water called the North Pacific Gyre — and at its center, there are tons of plastic garbage. You may even have seen this picture of the garbage patch, above — right? Wrong.

“That image, widely mislabeled as a shot of the Pacific garbage patch, is actually from Manila harbor. And it’s just one of many misconceptions the public has about what’s really happening to plastics in the ocean. We talked with Scripps Institution marine biologist Miriam Goldstein, who has just completed a study of how plastic is changing the ecosystem in the North Pacific Gyre, about myths and realities of the Pacific garbage patch.

“‘That picture of the guy in the canoe has been following me around my whole career! I think it’s an example of media telephone, where somebody wanted something dramatic to illustrate their story — and then through the magic of the internet, the picture got mislabeled. We have never seen anything like that picture. I’ve never seen it personally, and we’ve never seen it on satellite.'”

Conclusions

Scientists have debunked the exaggerated stories about the Great Garbage Patch, but more people see the myth than the corrections. Meanwhile science continues.

The large amount of plastic waste in the oceans was first reported by Edward J. Carpenter and K. L. Smith Jr. in “Plastics on the Sargasso Sea Surface” (Science, 17 March 1972): “Their occurrence was widespread. … Most of the pieces were hard, white cylindrical pellets, about 0.25 to 0.5 cm {0.1 – .2″} in diameter…”. That debris accumulated in specific areas of the Pacific was predicted in a paper by Robert Day et al at a 1989 NOAA conference.

Today research focuses on the effects of the large quantities of plastic — mostly very small pieces — on the ocean ecosystem, and on the effects of the chemicals produced by their breakdown. How bad is this? It is a frontier in ocean science, well worth attention.

We do know that overfishing and pollution are wrecking the ocean, creating one of our most serious ecological problems. We need to act soon. But the flood of exaggerations and lies about environmental problems — as in the example shown here — only further erode people’s already low confidence in our institutions. This makes it more difficult for us to see and respond to the many challenges we face.

Update: good news!

A bacterium that degrades and assimilates poly(ethylene terephthalate)“, Science, 11 March 2016 — Abstract:

Some bacteria think plastic is fantastic

Bacteria isolated from outside a bottle-recycling facility can break down and metabolize plastic. The proliferation of plastics in consumer products, from bottles to clothing, has resulted in the release of countless tons of plastics into the environment. Yoshida et al. show how the biodegradation of plastics by specialized bacteria could be a viable bioremediation strategy (see the Perspective by Bornscheuer). The new species, Ideonella sakaiensis, breaks down the plastic by using two enzymes to hydrolyze PET and a primary reaction intermediate, eventually yielding basic building blocks for growth.

For more about this see “Could a new plastic-eating bacteria help combat this pollution scourge?“, The Guardian, 10 March 2016 — “Scientists have discovered a species of bacteria capable of breaking down commonly used PET plastic but remain unsure of its potential applications.”

Other posts about activist scientists misrepresenting science

For More Information

This post was inspired by this article by Kip Hansen, who gave a technical look at this subject (with less about the history).

What’s been done wrong in the campaign for policy action to fight climate change. Here is a first step to restarting the debate.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See these all posts about our dying oceans, especially these…

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10 thoughts on “Are we “choking the ocean with plastic”? Tracing creation of a myth.

  1. Editor of FM ==> Very nicely done.

    It is those wily bacterium that will reduce this problem to inconsequence (as long as we quit allowing our plastic trash to escape into the sea). They already have disappeared 90-99% of the plastic known to have entered the oceans.

    There is a funny line being used to try to keep this worry alive: “Plastics absorb pollutants, thus when they are digested by bacteria, the pollutants are released into the wild.” The oddness exhibited is that it ignores that the plastics absorb the pollutants from the environment in the first place and then release them back into the environment — there is no addition of pollutants. I suppose there is some concern about the odd ingredients that some plastic products may include, the same applies to plastics that are land-filled.

    All in all, kindergarten rules apply: “Pick up after yourself, place trash in the trash bins.”

    For the likes of Moore, “Don’t make up stories, tell the truth.”

    Like

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