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Sierra Daily

Jan 06, 2011

Garbage Patch Smackdown

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In recent days a controversy has emerged among scientists about the size of the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," the area of floating plastic in the Pacific Ocean. The man who discovered it says it's bigger than Texas; a young professor at Oregon State University says it is a tiny fraction of that. I recently wrote about the issue in Sierra (“Message in a Bottle,” May/June 2009); here’s my take on the dustup:

The story begins with Charlie Moore, a sailor and freelance scientist, who took a voyage across the North Pacific Gyre in 1997 and found little bits of throwaway plastic everywhere he looked. Intrigued, he returned to gather samples and find the boundaries of the trash zone. Moore's investigative tenacity is equaled by his flair for a good quote, and he has appeared everywhere from the New York Times to TED to declare the "North Pacific Garbage Patch" as vast in size—the size of Texas, or maybe three times that. In fact, Moore told me  he believes the Patch to be far larger -- as much as five million square miles, or one and a half times the size of the United States.

No one publicly took issue with Moore's estimates until Tuesday, when Angelicque White, an assistant professor at Oregon State University, issued a press release asserting that the Garbage Patch is way, way smaller than Moore's estimate—in fact, less than one percent of the land area of Texas. Who's right?

The disagreement exists because Moore and White use different yardsticks. Imagine if the North Pacific Ocean were a stadium parking lot littered with trash after a football game. Moore might describe the area of trash as the entire parking lot, while White would make her measurement after it was all raked into a pile. Same amount of trash, just at different concentrations.

As for the trash talking, White may be taking some lessons from Moore's playbook. "There is a bit of parsing of the facts to obtain notoriety on her part in the same vein as those of whom she is so critical," Moore wrote to me in an email Wednesday.

White's media broadside took issue with several other public misconceptions that have sprouted about the Garbage Patch, such that it can be seen from space (it can't; often it can't even be seen from a ship's rail), that it can be cleaned up (very difficult, though some are trying), that there is now more plastic than plankton in the ocean (there isn't, but in some parts of the Garbage Patch Moore found that plastic predominated) and that the amount of plastic is doubling every decade (studies reveal contradictory evidence).

What the two researchers do agree on is that the volume of plastic waste in our oceanic "parking lot" is a shocking and awful. Even by White's concentrated estimate, the amount of the trash in the Garbage Patch would cover nearly 2,685 square miles, enough to blanket the square mileage of Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, El Paso, Corpus Cristi and Lubbock, and still have some left over for the suburbs.

And that's just the North Pacific. Since Moore's Texas-sized discovery, other trawling expeditions  have discovered areas of ocean borne plastic in the Atlantic and the Southern Pacific. Plastic also litters the ocean floor off of many coastal urban areas.

"What is worth remembering is that we should not even be having to worry about this issue, or going out to look for plastic in the first place!" said Doug Woodring, the founder of Project Kaisei, which seeks solutions to the plastic scourge, including cleanup. "The fact that we can find bits of plastic, scattered across tens of thousands of miles, in one of the most remote ecosystems on earth, is a good barometer of our disposable society and what we are doing to our planet."

--David Ferris 

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