Photo credit: Kevin Krejci/Creative Commons
The garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean, formed by discarded debris swept up by ocean currents, is frequently said to be "twice the size of Texas." This description conjures images of floating islands to trash, swirling in a remote part of the ocean, possibly even visible from space.
The image is evocative, for sure, but according to a new report from a professor of oceanography at Oregon State University, it may be largely hyperbolic."There is no doubt that the amount of plastic in the world's oceans is troubling," Angelicque White explains, "but this kind of exaggeration undermines the credibility of scientists."
Based on her participation in an expedition to measure the volume of plastic in the Pacific and reviews of the published research on the subject, White believes a much more conservative estimate is in order. By looking at the area and volume of plastic, she says, the actual size of a cohesive patch would be less than one percent of the actual 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."
More troubling, White explained, are claims that that the plastic patches are growing. In fact, recent research conducted by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution found that the amount of plastic—at least in the Atlantic Ocean—hasn't increased since the mid-1980s.
On the one hand, this seems to be good news but the smaller, stagnant mass of garbage also carries it's own concerns.
It could, of course, be a sign that around the world, people have gotten better at dealing with plastic waste. Unfortunately, it could also indicate that more plastic is simply sinking or being broken down into microscopic bits. Either of these possibilities could mean that plastic is not only still finding its way into the oceans, but is also still acting as a vector for invasive species and a source of toxins for marine life.
"If there is a takeaway message, it's that we should consider it good news that the 'garbage patch' doesn't seem to be as bad as advertised," White said but added that "since it would be prohibitively costly to remove the plastic, we need to focus our efforts on preventing more trash from fouling our oceans in the first place."
Read more about oceanic plastic:
There's More Than One Ocean Trash Gyre! 5 Gyres Project Switches Focus from Great Pacific Garbage Patch to Other 4 Gyres (Video)
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch: "Out of Sight, Out of Mind"
Taking Out the Trash....From Ocean Garbage Patches