Great Pacific Garbage Soup

– A stunning video showing consequences from our wasting of the oceans, 2/17/2013


A Google search of “the great pacific garbage patch” brings up thousands of sites, images, and videos of a giant swirling trash patch between Japan and the Southwestern United States. One statistic, credited to the National Science Foundation and repeated over and over, says that the garbage patch is about twice the size of Texas.  But a recent study by an oceanographer at Oregon State University shows that this is a gross exaggeration…and that may be hurting efforts to address it.

OSU professor Angel White is bothered by the media coverage of the “garbage patch” because of the divide it creates between scientists, the public, and the media.  Ocean plastic is a problem that must be dealt with, but in order to do that we need to be realistic about what the situation really is.

According to White’s research,  it is a misrepresentation to even call it a “patch.” There is plastic in the Pacific, but it is not condensed and the area more likely represents the size of about 1 percent of Texas. White describes the plastic as small in size and dilute, more like a soup than a patch. The idea of a garbage patch suggests that clean up could be as easy herding or scooping the plastic out of the water. It is much more complicated and expensive than this. He says that the focus should be to decrease the amount of plastic going into the ocean.

The fact that a great pacific garbage patch does not exist is good news. White hopes that exposing the truth about Pacific plastic will help to create real solutions to a problem that needs to be dealt with. She discusses her motives and the public response to her research in an interview by Randy Olsen.  An excerpt is after the jump.

Randy Olson: Are you now or have you even been a card-carrying member of the American Plastics Council?

Angel White: No. And I’m not an industry shill.


RO: Are you willing to make public statements about the need to reduce the amount of plastics entering the oceans?

AW: Absolutely. There’s no place for plastic in our marine environment — in our rivers, in our waterways, on our coasts or in our oceans. I say this every time I’m interviewed. It’s interesting to see where this message comes out, in terms of priority, in each interview. Sometimes it’s buried in the article. But definitely, I think we should be reducing the amount of plastic that we use, and we should be making concerted efforts to make sure that plastic doesn’t end up in marine systems.


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 problem of plastics in the North Pacific has really captured the public’s imagination. There’s been a lot of public interest and a good deal of misinformation. Since returning from the my initial cruise in 2008 to the North Pacific gyre, I’ve given several talks in Oregon with the same message that is in the OSU press release.

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 believe that is the way Captain Charles Moore has described it. And that is actually a very good way to put it. Unfortunately, it’s not as powerful as “twice the size of Texas.” That was a wonderful word picture that really gave people some pause when they purchased plastic — it made them think, “Man, there’s this island out there and I don’t want to contribute to it.” 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.


RO: What sort of flack have you gotten since the press release came out?

AW: Well, for starters, a number of emails from people suggesting that I should work on my resume — that surely I must be paid by the American Chemistry Council. More than half of the emails I’m getting are negative. The positive emails I’m getting are mostly from scientists — from people who are even in the conservation world saying, “Thank you for saying this.”

I’ve gotten a few emails from people who have done work at Midway who say, “It doesn’t matter if it’s the size of Texas or the size of France or the size of your backyard, it’s still a problem.” Actually, I fundamentally disagree with that. The oceans cover 70% of our planet. If it’s only the size of my backyard then I really don’t care about it.

We need to find new ways to conceptualize this problem without hyperbole.

And by the way, I don’t have any funding to do this work. My funding is to investigate elemental cycling and develop optics-based models of primary productivity in the North Pacific. I was only on one cruise where we dealt with plastics. I’m not applying for any funding for this, and I certainly don’t have any non-profits offering me money, that’s for sure. So I’m not financially tied to this problem either way.


RO: Has the misrepresentation been only from the media?

AW: I don’t think so. A reporter from Canada pointed out to me on the phone yesterday that there are a few sources of confusing messages. A group of graduate students from Scripps went to the North Pacific in 2009 as part of their SEAPLEX project. When you look at the blog of their cruise you see they’re saying the same thing we’re saying — the plastic is small, it’s widespread. But the title of one of their press releases was, “Scientists Find Pacific Ocean garbage patch.” It doesn’t matter what they say after that. It doesn’t matter that they are entirely accurate in the text. The title was “Scientists Find Plastic Patch.”

The title of my press release is basically, “It’s not a Patch, and it’s not as big as Texas.” I say the exact same things as they said in the specifics of the text. But we know that the only thing most people ever see is the title.

0 replies
  1. KM
    KM says:

    Laid back understatement isn’t an effective motivator for the masses. The media want that sensational head line that drives profit and consumption and the greater population of the disparate group of world consumers doesn’t have the time, inclination or mental abilities to read past attention grabbing headlines.

    Perhaps Professor White can focus on the what appears the to be the gist of her release/study, “We need to find new ways to conceptualize this problem without hyperbole.” because the industry that creates the problem is clasping it’s hands in delight over her work and the consumers that drive it just rolled over and went back to sleep.


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