Great Pacific Garbage Patch Not Great or a Patch

by Liz Colville

When dealing with skeptics, environmental activists usually have to walk a fine line between “This isn’t so bad; you can make a difference if you just buy this Prius,” and “This is so bad that there’s really nothing you could do to reverse it, even if every person tried really hard for a thousand years, but try anyway.” One such activist is Angel White, a microbial oceanographer at Oregon State University. She’s among a group of scientists letting us know that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which has gotten attention on a lot of TV programs including Oprah, and is written up in textbooks as being the size of Texas, isn’t really what people think it is, i.e. is not the size of Texas.

It also doesn’t look nearly as stunningly awful as people think. It’s not like a plastic trash version of Waterworld. There are no plastic towers or toilet-seat buoys or bath toys. Rather:

the majority of plastic in the sea consists of confetti-like specks that are spread out widely and nearly impossible to see with the naked eye.

Another scientist who, like White, actually visited the patch, agrees that most of the plastic encountered “was tiny, widely dispersed and invisible to the naked eye.”

Why specks? Are those talented creatures of the deep who ate the methane after the Deepwater Horizon spill also eating all our plastic water bottles and disposable toothbrushes? Well, yes, creatures and the elements do break the plastic down (difficultly, but eventually). The bad news is that the scientists responsible for this real talk think that tiny specks all over the goddamn place “might actually be worse and far more insidious” than a big mythical heap. White, et al don’t actually explain why small pieces of plastic are more dangerous, and they should probably assume that we all know nothing. But we do know that plastic kills marine wildlife, and presumably it is far easier to avoid an entire floating toilet seat than tiny pieces of plastic floating among the plankton that you eat and are supposed to eat.

Class dismissed. As you were, drinking from your Sigg bottle or whatever the newest non-plastic thing is.