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.
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.”