May312010
More on The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Written by Greg Laden
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 Miriam Goldstein, and an example of one of these questionable videos.

 


Greg Laden is a biological anthropologist who has done fieldwork in South Africa and archeology in North America.  He has also studied human evolution and went to Harvard for grad school and his Ph.D. In case you didn't get that part, he'll mention it more than a few times on his witty and highly popular blog with an incredibly original name.This post was republished from that blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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