Featured Image: The Ocean Cleanup
You’ve likely heard whispers of the ‘Plastic Island’ controversy. Of a vast area in the Pacific Ocean filled with plastic waste so thick it appears to be an island and so vast it outsizes countries. Naturally, such hyperboles drove scepticism and a controversy was born.
When the controversy gained traction, the issue became ideological and each side evermore vocal. Only, both sides have tended to be wrong or devious, indulging truths, misrepresenting facts and flat out denying inconvenient information.
The situation was enveloped in opinion and the true circumstances became difficult to discern. But, amidst the veil of opinions, there are questions that have objective answers – you need only sift through the garbage.
Is the Plastic Island real? What is it? How big is it? Why is there a controversy?
The North Pacific Gyre
The North Pacific Gyre is a major oceanic current in the northern Pacific Ocean. It spans the area between Japan and the west coast of North America. The name may sound familiar. That’s because it is the underpinning of the Plastic Island controversy.
The gyre acts as a sort-of continental sized whirlpool, slowly collecting waste from a vast area and concentrating it in a centralised location. This location is roughly halfway between Hawaii and California. (Although, it would be more appropriately described as two separate regions connected by a bridge – there are two distinct ‘collection zones’, one in the east and another in the west, connected to each other by the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone).
This location has come to be known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) because of the exceptionally high concentrations of plastic found there. The exact concentrations of plastics vary across the region. But, a zone of roughly 1.6 million square kilometres has been established, wherein plastic concentrations are highly concerning.
The controversy around this situation has arisen from people indulging or distorting these facts. Most notably of the plastic concentrations in the GPGP through hyperbole and the evidence provided by aerial surveys.
Language is an important tool for communication. But, it is easily misconstrued, often intentionally. The use of phrases, like ‘garbage patch’ and ‘plastic island’, mislead the reality of the situation.
There is no ‘garbage patch’, nor is there anything reminiscent of the image that comes from the title ‘garbage island”. There is, ‘a large area of ocean where high levels of plastics give the impression of a diffused soup’. In reality, microplastics constitute most of the GPGP – microplastics are still highly concerning.
“The continued use of verbage such as ‘plastic islands’, ‘twice the size of Texas’ is pure hyperbole that I personally believe undermines the credibility of those that should be focused on helping reduce the source stream of marine debris to our oceans.”
– Associate Professor, Dr Angelicque White
The claims may be intended to foster greater interest in the issue, but, as the quote suggest, do nothing more than undermine the credibility of the sources that purport the hyperbole. And this has driven people from the cause.
Those that remained adamant proponents of the issue were faced with yet another challenge when images of the area surfaced.
‘Plastic Island’ Aerial Survey’s and Satellite Imagery
When Aerial Surveys and Satellite imagery of the area purporting to host the GPGP emerged and there appeared to be no rubbish, various news sites jumped to their keyboards in joyous denouncement of the ‘Plastic Island’ – “Where’s the plastic island these greenies keep talking about?”.
Indeed, this was likely the fault of greenies that belied the situation. The very reason these devoid images were so controversial is because the plastic island has been heavily misrepresented. Even the few larger objects visible in the images did little to quell doubt in people’s minds – they had been led to believe the area was engulfed by a vast swathe of plastic waste.
While these images raised doubt in the general public, they came as no shock to the scientific community. They simply reaffirmed what was already general knowledge and what studies had already concluded – there is a high concentration of microplastics in the North Pacific Gyre.
A study published in Scientific Reports, paraphrased by National Geographic, found:
The [model] shows how the concentration levels gradually decrease by orders of magnitude towards the outside boundaries of the GPGP. The centre concentration levels contain the highest density, reaching 100s of kg/km², while decreasing down to 10 kg/km² in the outermost region.
The GPGP is no myth. But, there is much misinformation out there. The controversy around it stemmed from ideological individuals trying to reinforce a biased and incorrect agenda, and all that resulted was confusion and detraction from the real issue of plastic pollution.