Good News: Another Green Doom Disproved -- Plastic Doesn't Outweigh Plankton in the Oceans
Ronald Bailey | January 7, 2011
Plastic makes it possible that you carry your own bags to the grocery now? And do stores give you inferior paper bags in which to carry your shopping booty? The campaign against cheap sturdy plastic bags is spreading around the globe driven in part by stories about how they are clogging up the oceans. Exhibit one in the anti-plastic campaign is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Using its usual rhetorical restraint, this is how Greenpeace describes the plastic apocalypse:
The trash vortex is an area the size of Texas in the North Pacific in which an estimated six kilos of plastic for every kilo of natural plankton, along with other slow degrading garbage, swirls slowly around like a clock, choked with dead fish, marine mammals, and birds who get snared. Some plastics in the gyre will not break down in the lifetimes of the grandchildren of the people who threw them away.
I am happy to report that new research once again shows that environmentalist predictions of doom are a bit exaggerated. As Science Daily reports:
There is a lot of plastic trash floating in the Pacific Ocean, but claims that the "Great Garbage Patch" between California and Japan is twice the size of Texas are grossly exaggerated, according to an analysis by an Oregon State University scientist.
Further claims that the oceans are filled with more plastic than plankton, and that the patch has been growing tenfold each decade since the 1950s are equally misleading, pointed out Angelicque "Angel" White, an assistant professor of oceanography at Oregon State.
"There is no doubt that the amount of plastic in the world's oceans is troubling, but this kind of exaggeration undermines the credibility of scientists," White said. "We have data that allow us to make reasonable estimates; we don't need the hyperbole. Given the observed concentration of plastic in the North Pacific, it is simply inaccurate to state that plastic outweighs plankton, or that we have observed an exponential increase in plastic."
White has pored over published literature and participated in one of the few expeditions solely aimed at understanding the abundance of plastic debris and the associated impact of plastic on microbial communities. That expedition was part of research funded by the National Science Foundation through C-MORE, the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (Web Link).
The studies have shown is that if you look at the actual area of the plastic itself, rather than the entire North Pacific subtropical gyre, the hypothetically "cohesive" plastic patch is actually less than 1 percent of the geographic 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."
Another way to look at it, White said, is to compare the amount of plastic found to the amount of water in which it was found. "If we were to filter the surface area of the ocean equivalent to a football field in waters having the highest concentration (of plastic) ever recorded," she said, "the amount of plastic recovered would not even extend to the 1-inch line."
Putting plastic in the ocean is not OK, but exaggerating it effects distorts how we set proper priorities in addressing real environmental problems. By far the biggest environmental problem for the oceans is overfishing which is the result of the lack of private property in fisheries.
Unfortunately, showing this new Green scare is mostly an over-hyped legend will probably have no effect on policy. We will all continue to be forced to engage in ritual plastic hate Whole Science Daily article here.