The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

I am annoyed with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

I’m annoyed for a lot of reasons that I won’t go into now, but mainly for one aspect of this problem: The idea of a mat of solid garbage extending across a portion of the Pacific Ocean that is the size of Europe (or whatever) is startling. It is the kind of thing that attracts attention, brings people to the table to discuss and consider conservation issues, and makes people want to be more aware of the environment, and to do something positive.

But, when people find out that there is no Pacific Garbage Patch, that they’ve been lied to by conservationists, by Greanpeace, the UN, and various private entrepreneurs, they get annoyed, walk away from the conservation movement, and become right wing Republicans.

That is terribly annoying.

So, what I’d like to do right now is to put an end to this whole Pacific Garbage Patch idea. There is no Pacific Garbage Patch. Yes, yes, there is a bunch of plastic, in tiny tiny itty bitty bits, floating around in various “gyres” in the world’s oceans. That may or may not be a problem. It is being studied. We may learn that there are some issues to deal with here. Or we may learn that this is like the one hundredth or the one thousandth most important thing to deal with regarding the environment.

I imagine that the plastic affects the transmission of sunlight, which is important. It may change the chemical nature of the upper stratum of water (but unlikely). It is possible that plastic in the food stream may diminish the caloric intake of foraging events enough to matter sometimes for some organisms in some years. The plastic could be a substrate for certain organisms that might otherwise not have a substrate, causing a change in local ecology or even assisting species invasion across vast reaches of ocean. Or, at least, those are the things that come to my mind when I think of tiny pieces of plastic floating around in gyres in the ocean.

But really we know very little about it. If you want to know more about this issue, check out the Seaplex FAQ page and NOAA’s Marine Debris page.

Let’s not allow misinformation about this issue to obscure and override important environmental concerns that are real. If this turns out to be important, we’ll be on it. At the moment, it is not at all clear. Much of the information we see out there borders on lies, or is just plain untruthful. The videos you see of the garbage floating around are NOT of the gyres. There are not zillions of plastic bottles and dirty diapers floating around on the surface of the Pacific ocean. The photos you are shown in videos about this isssue are photos of something else, which to me is a very very dishonest way of “framing” the issue. See this post for some discussion on this, including an important comment by Mariam Goldstein, and an example of one of these questionable videos.

Comments

  1. #2 wolfwalker
    March 15, 2010

    So, what I’d like to do right now is to put an end to this whole Pacific Garbage Patch idea. There is no Pacific Garbage Patch. Yes, yes, there is a bunch of plastic, in tiny tiny itty bitty bits, floating around in various “gyres” in the world’s oceans.

    Very nice to see some honesty in a ScienceBlogs post about a political issue. That’s a rare commodity these days.

    However, I have to observe, with some amusement, that this statement:

    It is possible that plastic in the food stream may diminish the caloric intake of foraging events enough to matter sometimes for some organisms in some years.

    may in fact go too far the other way. A quick web search brought up numerous items about how plastic collected from the various Pacific ‘garbage patches’ is starving and killing albatross chicks. And probably other kinds of seabirds too. Are these reports and the accompanying photographs staged or otherwise deceptive?

  2. #3 Kerrick
    March 15, 2010

    Now I’m annoyed with the Garbage Patch too. Where are people getting their photos of a dense sea of large pieces of plastic trash?

  3. #4 sadpanda
    March 15, 2010

    Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation has some good talks on this subject which should be on Youtube.

    http://www.algalita.org/AlgalitaFAQs.htm

  4. #5 Kayla
    March 15, 2010

    If people are so dumb that they can’t take off their literalist tinted shades and see that the name is merely a misnomer, well, then, we got a whole bunch of half-retarded goons running about.

  5. #6 Stephanie Z
    March 15, 2010

    Kayla, where’s the dumb when the information that’s being put out on this in the popular media is all aimed at reinforcing their literalism?

    Kerrick, I’ve seen similar pictures from where rivers feed into lakes or oceans. Between a constant upstream source of garbage and the way the river water enters the bigger body, there is often a perfect pretty much recipe for “rafts” of garbage.

  6. #7 Greg Laden
    March 15, 2010

    Righ… to second what Stephanie said, the garbage photos are from major mostly third world river estuaries, such as a famous one in Indonesia. They are always coastal. And no, this is not just a minmoer, although I agree with the basic idea. The fact is that the people/agencies that are brining the plastic patches to the attention of the public are using false advertising, plain and simple. This is like showing children starving in NE Africa during one of the major droughts in a videw pointing out health care problems in American ghettos. The extremes are not calibrated and the subject matter itself may or may not be off topic.

    When it comes to the War on Science, this sort of rhetoric is like a general ordering his Division to shoot at each other instead of the enemy.

    Stop me before I use another metaphor. Don’t want a ny train wrecks to happen here…

  7. #8 Greg Laden
    March 15, 2010

    wolfwalker: My understanding is that we do not know what effects plastic in the seabird chick’s guts (or the adults, whence it comes as they bring the “food” to the chicks) has. We simply do not know yet. Yes, there is rhetoric and “reports” and so on, but most albatros chicks starve or otherwise die. the presence of plastic in their guts is not proof of cause. There are people working on this.

    Good question, though.

    I never play politics with The Science by the way. That does not mean that I don’t recognize that there is politics in sicence, and it does not mean that I’m not prepared to go to the mat, politically, to fight for the science. But you don’t put politics in the process of doing the science.

  8. #9 Mu
    March 15, 2010

    There have been reports on these floating little trash islands being home to completely new ecosystems in the otherwise empty pelagic desert. As usual, unless we’re completely clear cutting an environment, nature moves in with a vengeance.

  9. #10 MadScientist
    March 15, 2010

    The lies are never helpful – just look at the huge negative effect the scaremongerers within the IPCC are having on their credibility. There is way too much emphasis (in the public, not necessarily within the IPCC) on “climate prediction” and scaremongering than there is on the actual science. People are thinking of Hollywood style monster storm systems rather than gradual degradation of vast ecosystems. I guess what’s difficult to perceive is never seen as a threat; the articles on changing patterns in crop behavior (and to some extent animal behavior) don’t seem to attract any attention and yet they are one of the best indicators of the way things are headed.

  10. #11 JerryM
    March 15, 2010

    Have you seen the BBC Natural World episode Hawaii: Message in the Waves ?

    http://messageinthewaves.com/

    As to your suggestion that the chicks just starve, perhaps that’s because the parents find stuff floating in the ocean that looks like food, and bring it to their chicks. Surely the nutritional value of such food need not be studied for long…

    Re the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is there a trail of reporting somewhere, from study, to PR announcing study, to reporting of study?

  11. #12 MadScientist
    March 15, 2010

    @wolfwalker: The photographs I’ve seen are easily staged, and in many situations it’s easy to see how the plastic and bird carcasses could have been thrown together fortuitously. If there weren’t ethical concerns I’d be tempted to demonstrate how all the plastic bits were killing cats. To make a claim that the plastic is killing birds requires some serious dedication and observation. For example, if this were such a common phenomenon as many would like people to believe, why have there been absolutely no autopsies conducted by trustworthy authorities? The only evidence just happens to be severely decomposed carcasses with plastic sprinkled in them? That’s the thing about science, you need to think of possibilities and investigate carefully – you can’t take a superficial look, decide you know what’s going on, and then work to invent “evidence”.

  12. #13 andy.s
    March 15, 2010

    Well I WAS planning to spend my summer vacation there, now I have to find something else to do.

  13. #14 Greg Laden
    March 15, 2010

    Madscientist, there is a HUGE difference between the IPCC and a bunch of hacks from Greenpeace, and between climate science on global warming and scare mongering regarding albatross chicks.

    I don’ think the plastic in the seabird guts has been faked. I know of some good science on that. The meaing/effects of the plastic is not clear.

    It may well be that there are real conservation and environmental issueshere, but we need to see what the real issues really are.

  14. #15 wolfwalker
    March 15, 2010

    @MadScientist: From the BBC article I linked:

    I watched as the deputy manager of the wildlife refuge here, Matt Brown, opened the corpse of one albatross and found inside it the handle of a toothbrush, a bottle top and a piece of fishing net.

    The rest of the article contains other examples. The reporter certainly makes it sound like the data you demand (and rightly so, I might add) is being collected. In addition, a web search turned up at least two papers and one informal article on the subject from what appear to be reliable sources:

    Causes of mortality of albatross chicks at Midway Atoll

    Plastic Ingestion by Laysan Albatross chicks on Midway, 1994-95

    Death of a Laysan Albatross Chick

    Other links suggest that the staff at Midway Atoll regularly examines dead albatross chicks to determine why they died, and many dead chicks exhibit a high plastic load.

    The cautious note struck in the second journal article, the 1994-95 study, appears to me to be the sort of wording that scientists use when what they really mean is “there’s a connection here, we just can’t determine exactly what it is yet.” It certainly shows an apparent correlation between plastic load and chick mortality.

  15. #16 Somnolent Aphid
    March 15, 2010

    Phew !

  16. #17 William
    March 15, 2010

    Does this mean there will be no Great Pacific Garbage Patch Kids trading cards?

  17. #18 Douglas Watts
    March 15, 2010

    Greg, this is a fairly tossed-off and ignorant piece of writing, especially given that is it is supposed to be a rant about tossed-off and ignorant pieces of writing.

    If you did your research you would know that marine debris is a serious threat to a lot of marine life, such as Right Whales, in particular ropes and fishing gear, and sea turtles, which mistake plastic for food. If you want to quibble about the locales used for a few photos you found on the internet and ignore the actual issue, you would have been better off just not writing the piece in the first place.

    And your question of whether sea bird chicks are actually harmed by eating plastic is moronic. Try feeding pieces of plastic to your newborn baby and report back to us.

  18. #19 Douglas Watts
    March 15, 2010

    Some published research on effects of plastic trash on ocean bird and animals:

    Azzarrello and Van Fleet, 1987.

    Derraik, J. 2002.

    Spear, Ainley & Ribic, 1995.

  19. #20 Greg Laden
    March 15, 2010

    Douglas, you are an unmitigated ass. Somewhere in your over the top ill considered commentary you make a couple of good points. Since this is an important issue, I’ll bother to extract them (well, the one that I see), but only after pointing out that your behavior and attitude are unacceptable, obnoxious, and you really ought to either start smoking again or go off line until the patch starts to work for you.

    In this blog post I am speaking of one thing and one thing only. The recent inaccurate and in my view politically counterproductive “reporting” of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. I’m not writing about sea debris (or for that matter fresh water debris, which you failed to mention in your comment, you fresh water ecology hating asshole) in general. Of course those are issues. OMG are you this fucking patronizing about everything in your life? Do you have any friends? Jeesh.

    I assume from your asinine comment that you prefer to see conservation organizations use falsehoods and in some cases out and out lies to make their case. What I am saying here is that this is a very very bad idea. There are enough serious problems related to the environment that we have to deal with, it is unnecessary to jump to likely inaccurate conclusions or to use inaccurate information (not images I have found on the internet, but images THEY are using on the internet). If it turns out, and it will, that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not a solid mass of garbage that you can see off the side of your boat, i.e., if it is not as depicted explicitly in the cited video, then the rhetoric that I am referring to here will set the environmental movement back significantly.

    What will happen then in relation to sea-garbage? What will happen, specifically, to promoting policy to reduce the harmful shit floating around in the oceans that humans have put there?

    There are people in the ocean conservation movement who are seriously worried about the effects of this stupid depiction of the gyres. They are mostly keeping their heads down and not saying much overtly because of people like you and the other morons who can’t see past the fuzzy wuzzy and understand the science.

    Thank you very much for ruining it for everyone. When the ocean dies it will be your fucking fault.

  20. #21 bitestheplasticandspitsitout
    March 15, 2010

    WOW! I came to comment, but…WTF? Imma go smoke for Douglas, instead.

  21. #22 Greg Laden
    March 15, 2010

    bitestheplasticandspitsitout, are you commenting as a neocon who wants to congratulate me for poitning out that some penguin is not going to choke to death on his discarded water bottle, or as some green nazi who does not care one whit about the truth (I mean, seriously, LOOK at the damn video … we KNOW those piles of trash are from river mouths, NOT the Pacific Gyre … then come back and tell me that they are not lying?) and wants to make him/herself feel better by protesting what is convenient, and not caring about what is really there?

    Or is your point that Douglas can come on my blog and be an absolute offensive shit and my job is to thank him for it?

    Or did you have some other point to make. I’d love to hear it.

  22. #23 Greg Laden
    March 15, 2010

    Douglas, thank you for the citation. It was held up in moderation.

    There is much more research than that out there, and more recent work as well, some discussed on this very blog.

    No one is disputing that shit in the ocean is very likely generally bad, and that there are specific threats and injury to sea birds.

  23. #24 bitestheplasticandspitsitout
    March 16, 2010

    Damn, Greg… Are those my only options? Let’s see, ah, I DO care about truth, so…neo, no…I DO think about the penguins, too!

    I see the video. I agree that there is no need to lie, and that lying is counter-productive.

    I appreciated Donald’s links (and wolfwalker’s too), and I empathized with his distress over your post. In the comment I didn’t write, I might have tackled the point in his first paragraph (though a little differently), might have left out the middle, and might have finished with something like he finished with (though leaving Huxley out of it.) I probably would have asked you about your “we simply do not know” and “”reports”” and “scare mongering regarding albatross chicks”, but since now “Now one is disputing…”, I guess I do not have to – unless by “shit in the ocean” you meant shit and not plastic as I assume (from context).

  24. #25 Viking
    March 16, 2010

    Greg, I as well have been annoyed with the use of unrelated imagery to illustrate the “garbage patch”. The problem of poor reporting on science is clearly not limited to this issue. I realize that the science is not “settled” so to speak, but I think there is enough evidence here of a problem to apply the precautionary principal. Even if the “garbage patch” is not a huge problem in and of itself it is certainly at the very least a symptom of a larger problem. Here in American Samoa we have a huge near-shore trash problem. One of my colleagues does necropsies on sea turtles and nearly all of them have plastic in their gut, while it is not clear (to my knowledge) that plastic is related to the cause of death it would not be a stretch to intuitively say that plastic is not good for turtle health. On a positive note, the legislature here has passed a plastic bag ban that is expected to be signed into law by the governor. http://www.samoanews.com/viewstory.php?storyid=13366

  25. #26 Greg Laden
    March 16, 2010

    Viking, all good points. Let me be very clear. No one who is concerned with marine conservation is NOT concerned with the garbage in the gyres. Everyone is concerned with this.

    The reason that there ARE scientists who over the next months or year or so will be able to tell us what is actually happening is becasue they got the grant money and got their stuff together and are out there looking BECAUSE they are in fact indeedly do really and truly honest to green pumpkins fucking concerned about the trash.

    BUT

    When we see the bald faced substitution of estuarine garbage rafts for the garbabe patches, and we see images of birds that may or may not be linked (and probably are not) to the gyre areas, it is like having your very nice car stuck on the RR tracks and seeing the light of the oncoming train.

    I have no idea why people would imagine for even a second that the neoconservative right wing anti science pro industry media thugs are going to just let this go by. It is probably already too late to stop this particular train. The people who made these films and other images may have been well intentioned by they were wrong to substitute made up shit for science.

    In one case, Greenpeace produced a map that supposedly showed the Pacific water currents, but they made no sense. An oceanographer I know pointed out to the Greenpeace person that the arrows they had on the map were air currents, not the water currents (which helped explained why some of them went over land).

    The answer from the Greenpeace person was to claim that it did not matter if the science was correct. It only mattered if the graphic worked as a fund raising tool.

    Thas is shameful.

    (Sorry, I get upset about it… I’ll go take a cold shower now.)

    I’m glad to hear about the plastic bag ban. One was implemented in South Africa recently and worked very well.

  26. #27 MadScientist
    March 17, 2010

    @wolfwalker: Animals dying due to fishing nets etc (largely strangulation or ensnaring/drowning) has been known for a very long time. The question is: is it a significant cause of the chick/juvenile/adult mortality? Another question is, is this at all related to the “garbage patch” as is being claimed? So you see a bird cut open and there is plastic in there – now it must be established that the plastic is a problem and it must also be established that this is a significant contributor to the mortality rate. A hell of a lot of birds I’ve butchered and eaten over the years have had sand and small pebbles in their gizzard, but I don’t know of anyone who believes that sand and pebbles is a leading cause of death in birds. Not to mention I am not the least bit impressed by the BBC in general; they’ve peddled a hell of a lot of nonsense as ‘fact'; for all I know the alleged operation was like one of those “psychic surgery” things – another scam which journalists bought into. Once again there is this problem of “ooh, a claim + a carefully picked fact (if it is indeed a fact) = claim must be true!” That does not even superficially resemble science.

  27. #28 Hank Roberts
    March 17, 2010

    > The people who made these films and other images may
    > have been well intentioned by they were wrong to
    > substitute made up shit for science.

    Yep. When I see this crap and go crazy at them, I try to lead by saying the _real_ science is scary; their PR/marketing horror fantasy is crap, and people _can_ tell the difference.

    Same problem with university press officers, as we hear often.

    Do you think an entire species can win a Darwin Award?

  28. #29 Hank Roberts
    March 17, 2010

    > there is plastic in there – now it must be established that >… this is a significant contributor to the mortality rate.

    Not the point. This sort of thing is going to reduce fitness — plastic has an energy cost compared to food. The problem is well documented in many species. Look up condor mortality.

    Point is — as that comment illustrates — that bad PR instead of clear presentation of good science encourates people who will take the opportunity to deny that there is good science.

    After all, if there were good science, why the bad PR, eh?

    Of course, a stolid scientists with great documentation of all the facts just gets killed on television.

    Op. cit.: http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2010/01/randy_olsons_new_blog_the_bensh.php (Greg, your ‘Check it out’ link at that posting is broken; current link is):
    http://thebenshi.com/

  29. #30 Hank Roberts
    March 18, 2010

    Oh, and

    > tiny tiny itty bitty bits

    Is this something you consider fake, or is it real? When you say the above, and that there’s no real garbage patch, it makes me wonder if all the photos we see are fakes like you describe, or if anything we see is real. Can you clarify?

    http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/04/great-pacific-garbage-patch-trash-vortex.php

    Same question for the text descriptions, does this match your understanding of what’s real? Or is this overstating it?

    http://md1.csa.com/partners/viewrecord.php?requester=gs&collection=TRD&recid=2004102408887CE&q=&uid=787375750&setcookie=yes

    > Greanpeace

  30. #31 Greg Laden
    March 18, 2010

    What I know is this: A major systematically designed research expedition went out to look and found no visible garbage, but they did find itty bitty peaces. I know that most/many of the photos of floating garbage can be ID’d as coastal …. because you can see the coast in the picture. The first blog post you cite is vague and hard to understannd, but the picture of the guy is with a net with garbage in it. It is a net full of seaweed as well. And, they say the “sailed” to the garbage patch. You can’t sail to the garbage patch because it is in the doldrums. No sailing there. And there is a big difference between what a net can drag up over an unspecified difference and shit floating in a giant island. So, I’ll stick with the research expedition results over some guy with a net.

    That second link is interesting. I wonder what it is. Is it a letter to the editor? I’d love the opinion of the researchers who are studying this on the paragraph in question. I can’t find a single photo linked to the Alguita voyages of an island of trash. Or maybe that was a bad year for trash?

  31. #32 Hank Roberts
    March 18, 2010

    a bit deeper into those links, this is from April 2008
    (I’d seen this some time ago, and thought it was general knowledge, well, among people who read anyhow)

    http://nynerd.com/sailing-into-the-pacific-ocean-garbage-patch/

    —-
    We go all the way out ( 2 straight days on a sail boat) expecting to see a floating dump, looking for our money shot that will make us famous.

    Here’s the bad news, there is no money shot. What people don’t get is that it’s not really a patch and it’s not really an island, both of which you might be able to contain and control. No, what we found is much worse. It’s like a gigantic toxic stew and it’s a big big problem that we need to pay attention to now.

    We decided to go against the conventional wisdom that internet video is for those with short attention spans, and are rolling out 12 episodes.

    You can go here to view the trailer for Toxic: Garbage Island and follow the series – http://www.vbs.tv/shows/toxic/garbage-island/

    TOXIC Garbage Island Part 1 of 12 – http://www.vbs.tv/video.php?id=1485308505
    Searching out the Pacific Ocean’s mythical floating trash heap…..
    (clickable links at the original blog post)

  32. #33 Hank Roberts
    March 18, 2010

    a bit deeper into those links.

    (Note that this is from April 2008 — I knew I’d seen this some time ago, and thought it was general knowledge, well, among people who read anyhow)

    http://nynerd.com/sailing-into-the-pacific-ocean-garbage-patch/

    —-
    We go all the way out ( 2 straight days on a sail boat) expecting to see a floating dump, looking for our money shot that will make us famous.

    Here’s the bad news, there is no money shot. What people don’t get is that it’s not really a patch and it’s not really an island, both of which you might be able to contain and control. No, what we found is much worse. It’s like a gigantic toxic stew and it’s a big big problem that we need to pay attention to now.

    We decided to go against the conventional wisdom that internet video is for those with short attention spans, and are rolling out 12 episodes.

    You can go here to view the trailer for Toxic: Garbage Island and follow the series – http://www.vbs.tv/shows/toxic/garbage-island/

    TOXIC Garbage Island Part 1 of 12 – http://www.vbs.tv/video.php?id=1485308505
    Searching out the Pacific Ocean’s mythical floating trash heap…..
    (clickable links at the original blog post)

    ——

    Looks like there might be more here, and at NOAA:
    http://alguita.com/research/research_voyage_2005.html
    “… in cooperation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), AMRF deployed the first-ever group of satellite tracking devices designed to monitor the way ghostnets and other large debris move around in the ocean. The crew were charged with the responsibility of attaching satellite tags to the four largest pieces of floating plastic or fishing nets they encountered, which they did successfully….”

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