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  (Source: localphilosophy.com)
Media says the "Great Garbage Patch" is twice the size of Texas while an Oregon State researcher says it is less than one percent of the size of Texas

An Oregon State University researcher has found that the media has been exaggerating the size of the "Great Garbage Patch" found between California and Japan. 

Angelicque White, an assistant professor of oceanography at Oregon State University, has studied the "Great Garbage Patch" and all of the media stories surrounding it, and concluded that most media reports have grossly overestimated the size of this garbage patch. 

White came to this conclusion after taking part in an expedition where the objective was to understand how much plastic debris is out there and how it affects the surrounding environment, such as microbial communities. The expedition was funded by the National Science Foundation through the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education. In addition, she has also studied published literature on the topic. 

With her research backing her up, White says that the media has exaggerated the size of the "Great Garbage Patch," making claims like the oceans are filled with more plastic than plankton, or that the patch is twice the size of Texas and has been growing tenfold each decade since 1950. 

"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," said White. "We have data that allow us to make reasonable estimates; we don't need 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."

Studies show, according to White, that the actual area of the "cohesive" plastic patch is really less than one percent of the size of Texas. She said the best way to look at it is to compare the amount of plastic found with the amount of water its in. 

"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, the amount of plastic recovered would not even extend to the 1-inch line," said White.  

White also noted that the claim about the amount of plastic growing tenfold every decade is false. This goes for the Atlantic Ocean as well, which, according to White, hasn't increased in plastic since the 1980's. 

"Are we doing a better job of preventing plastics from getting into the ocean?" said White. "Is more plastic sinking out of the surface waters? Or is it being more efficiently broken down? We just don't know. But the data on hand simply do not suggest that 'plastic patches' have increased in size. This is certainly an unexpected conclusion, but it may in part reflect the high spatial and temporal variability of plastic concentrations in the ocean and the limited number of samples that have been collected."

While plastic in the ocean isn't necessarily a good thing, White noted that we can't simply go out there and pick the plastic up out of the ocean. White's expedition, which aimed to observe the plastic's impact on microbial communities, showed that these small organisms have made the plastic particles their "prime real estate" and thrive on the plastic. If the plastic were to be removed, White worries that it could have harmful effects on the microbial community. 

"These small organisms are the heartbeat of the ocean," said White. "They are the foundation of healthy ocean food chains and immensely more abundant than plastic debris." 

What's equally as troubling as the effect on the microbial community is the hyperbole the media has been spreading regarding the garbage patch. White says there are four clarifications that need to be made regarding what people have heard about the garbage patch. First, the amount of energy it would take to take the plastic patch out of the ocean is 250 times the mass of the plastic itself. Second, plastic also covers the ocean floor, but little is known about how much is actually down there. According to a recent survey, about three percent of the Southern California Bight's ocean floor is covered with plastic. Third, White says you cannot see or quantify plastic from space. Most of the plastic isn't even visible from a boat deck. Finally, there are areas of the ocean that are no polluted at all, such as remote areas between Easter Island and Chile. 

"If there is a takeaway message, it's that we should consider it good news that the 'garbage patch' doesn't seem to be as bad as advertised," said White. "But since it would be prohibitively costly to remove the plastic, we need to focus our efforts on preventing more trash from fouling our oceans in the first place."





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