The 'Great Pacific Garbage Patch' myth
Many, perhaps most, Americans believe that a vast accumulation of (mostly plastic) garbage is floating somewhere out in the Pacific Ocean, a non-biodegradable stain on humanity, choking and deforming fish. But apparently, that is just a myth. Kip Hansen writing in Watts Up With That? cites NOAA’s Ocean Service — Office of Response and Restoration:
“The NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Carey Morishige takes down two myths floating around with the rest of the debris about the garbage patches in a recent post on the Marine Debris Blog:
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. Morishige explains this misnomer:
“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.”
Hansen’s essay is long and complex, and worth a read. Here are his conclusions:
We each need to do all we can to keep every sort of trash and plastic contained and disposed of in a responsible manner – this keeps it out of the oceans (and the rest of the natural environment).
Volunteerism to clean up beaches and reefs is effective and worthwhile.
Responsible boating includes keeping your trash (and especially plastics) under control and disposed of properly ashore.
The “floating rafts of plastic garbage”-version of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a pernicious myth that needs to be dispelled at every opportunity.
Have a little more faith in “Nature” – the natural system finds a way to use most everything – in the case of oceanic plastics, as homes and food.
The “missing 99% of the plastic in the oceans” has been eaten, mostly by bacteria and other microbes. These little critters will continue to eat the plastic and if we reduce the amount of plastic going into the oceans, they may eventually eat it all up.
So, the interesting question is where did the “pernicious myth” of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch come from? Hansen cites propaganda posts from the likes of the Guardian:
The Guardian is atypical in that it states, in the caption, that the photo is of Manila Bay, Philippines – garbage forced by the wind into a raft near shore after a tropical storm washed all the trash from the city streets and slums into the bay.
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.”
From the presumably guilt-ridden oil heir with plenty of free time on his hands, the myth exploded, because, well, journalists love scare stories that indict the technological capitalist society that doesn’t reward them as highly as they think they deserve.
Kummer’s tale is even more entertaining than Hansen’s. There is so much exaggeration and credulousness that it reinforces the notion that yuou should always be skeptical of predictions of doom emanating from the nonprofit and media sectors.
Face it: people who are not anchored to a belief in God have a gnawing insecurity at their core, and must find some external demon to blame for it.
Hat tip: Clarice Feldman