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Oceanic garbage patch much smaller than previously reported: study

The size of an area of floating plastic refuse in the northern Pacific Ocean called the called "Great Garbage Patch" has been wildly exaggerated by media reports, according to a new analysis from Oregon State University.


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January 9, 2011 by Canadian Plastics

The size of an area of floating plastic refuse in the northern Pacific Ocean called the called “Great Garbage Patch” has been wildly exaggerated by media reports, according to a new analysis from Oregon State University.

“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 Angelicque White, an oceanographer at Oregon State University. “We have data that allow us to make reasonable estimates; we don’t need the hyperbole.”

Widely reported as being twice the geographic size of the state of Texas, the garbage patch between California and Japan is actually less than one per cent of the size of Texas, the analysis concluded.

White also noted that other research, by scientists at the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, suggests that the amount of plastic recorded in the ocean hasn’t increased since the mid-1980s, despite greater production and consumption of materials made from plastic – a finding that also runs counter to many media reports.

“Are we doing a better job of preventing plastics from getting into the ocean?” White said. “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.”

Sunken plastic, particularly offshore of large population centers, has the potential to be real concern, White conceded. A recent survey from California, for example, found that three per cent of the southern California Bight’s ocean floor was covered with plastic. But little is known about how much plastic has accumulated at the bottom of the ocean, she said, or about how far offshore these debris fields extend.

While there is growing interest in removing plastic from the ocean, White said, such efforts would be costly, inefficient, and may have unforeseen consequences – such as inadvertently removing phytoplankton, zooplankton, and small surface-dwelling aquatic creatures.

“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,” she concluded, “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.”