Ocean plastic patch may be manageable

Reports of Pacific Ocean’s plastic patch being Texas-sized are grossly
exaggerated, according to an Oregon State University professor.

Thank goodness!  Now it may be manageable.

Updated: Wednesday,
January 05, 2011, 12:56 PM
By Scott Learn, The Oregonian
SCRIPPS INSTITUTION OF OCEANOGRAPHY

There’s plenty of trash in the Pacific Ocean, plastic and otherwise. But an Oregon State
University professor says the extent of the problem is “grossly
exaggerated.”
Remember that Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the pile of floating
plastic and other debris “twice the size of Texas” or more?

Now comes Oregon State University assistant professor Angelicque
“Angel” White to say that estimate is “grossly exaggerated.”

White, who participated in a 2008 scientific expedition to survey
plastic debris, figures the size of a hypothetically cohesive Pacific
plastic “patch” is actually less than 1 percent the geographic size of
Texas.

What’s more, the oceanography professor says the data suggest that
plastic contamination hasn’t increased dramatically — or perhaps not
at all — in recent decades, despite greater use of plastic.

There’s definitely too much plastic in the ocean — it “doesn’t belong
there,” White says, and many varieties degrade slowly.

But the hyperbole about the problem undermines scientific credibility,
she says, and drives a wedge between the public and scientists.

Media references to a Texas-plus sized patch of debris and plastic
“islands” have been far-ranging in recent years, from Oprah to the
Russian newspaper Pravda to a plastic cleanup article by a certain
environmental reporter at The Oregonian (mea culpa).

White said she saw firsthand on an expedition funded by the National
Science Foundation that “the word picture that’s been painted is
unrealistic.”

The contamination is dispersed in the water, typically beneath the
surface. Her estimate, she says, uses the highest plastic
concentrations in ocean water ever reported by scientists.

“I had heard ‘twice the size of Texas,’ ‘300 feet deep,’ the scariest
thing Oprah had ever seen, and then you go out there and you don’t see
it,” White says. “Plastic in the ocean is not a good thing, but it’s
not as bad as it’s being portrayed.”

Claims that the ocean has more plastic than plankton or that the patch
has grown tenfold each decade since the 1950s are equally misleading,
White says.

The expedition found that photosynthetic microbes such as algae were
thriving on many tiny plastic particles, and plastic can absorb some
toxins.

But those same toxin-laden particles can be eaten by fish and
seabirds, entering the food chain. And birds and marine mammals are
drawn to eat larger pieces of bright plastic, which can harm them,
White says.

The Algalita Marine Research Foudation in California, founded by sea
captain Charles Moore, first spotlighted the ocean pollution. After a
1999 expedition, it reported a garbage patch of mostly plastic that
could be the size of Texas, Executive Director Marieta Francis says.

Foundation expeditions have since found plastic in ocean samples out
to the international date line, Francis says, showing that the extent
of contamination is actually much larger than first estimated.

But “it’s not really a patch,” Francis agreed.

“Unfortunately, we were kind of responsible for some of that at
first,” she says. “It gives the general public a visual, but it also
gives people a (false) impression of a solid mat that we could go
clean up.”

Oregon’s Legislature will consider a ban on plastic checkout bags this
year, backed by grocers, paper bag makers and environmental groups,
including the Oregon chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.

Gus Gates, Surfrider’s Oregon policy coordinator, says he tries to
avoid the Texas comparison.

But beach and river cleanups find plenty of plastic trash, Gates says,
from bags to water bottles to fishing gear to polystyrene foam.

When heavy winds broke up the North Pacific gyre of rotating ocean
currents last spring, he says, “We saw a huge volume of trash washing
up on our beaches.”

As a scientist, White says she sticks to “conceptualizing the problem
in a way that makes sense to me.”

As an Oregonian, she chooses to use cloth bags.

“I think this is actually a hopeful story,” she says. “If we stop
using so much plastic and wasting it now, we can make sure we don’t
have any plastic islands in the future.”

SilentLoudmouth note:  curbing plastic bags in the ocean is important because leatherback sea turtles can mistake them for jellyfish, swallow them, and choke.  Leatherbacks are extremely endangered.  Plastic items are also being found in the stomachs of sharks, sea lions, and other marine creatures.

 

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