Angelicque White: Garbage soup, not garbage patch, in our oceans

Reasearchers pulled plastic bottles with a variety of biological inhabitants out of the North Pacific Gyre. Copyright 2009 Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Scientists say the plastic pollution in our world’s oceans is more like a dilute soup than a floating patch of garbage.

That’s according to several ocean scientists who have studied the now-notorious North Pacific Gyre, which contains what is called the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch. But even though there are no dense islands of plastic in either the Pacific or Atlantic, media portrayals using the phrase “the size of Texas” might be an understatement. In fact, no one knows the extent of the areas in Earth’s oceans that contain floating plastic. The combined areas of floating plastic might be bigger than Texas.

EarthSky talked about ocean plastic with three ocean scientists on January 10, 2011. All agreed that some media reports have exaggerated the density of plastic that has been found in the ocean. They said media descriptions of the area as Texas-sized have given the public the wrong impression.

Angelicque White, an ocean scientist, kicked off the recent discussion about what the garbage patch is really like with a press release issued from her home institution, Oregon State University, last week.

(The individual pieces of plastic) are very small in size. The plastic is extremely widespread, in the sense that it’s not just in the North Pacific. It’s in other ocean basins, too. But it’s not a patch. It’s not a cohesive region of plastic debris floating on the surface of the ocean that you could see from the deck of a boat.

White participated in a research cruise through the North Pacific Gyre in 2008. Returning to Oregon, she analyzed all the data that’s been published on plastic distribution in the world’s oceans, and calculated how large a hypothetical plastic patch would be if the highest concentrations of plastic – one million pieces per square kilometer – was “corralled” or concentrated into one area. The hypothetical patch would equal less than 1 percent of the size of Texas, White said. In fact, the plastic is spread over a much, much wider area, meaning that the density of plastic in the ocean is very low.


Researchers used a manta tow, a net that collects sea surface samples, during SEAPLEX. Copyright 2009 Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Miriam Goldstein of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who led a research expedition called SEAPLEX that surveyed plastic in the North Pacific Gyre in 2009, agrees that the ocean garbage patches are really more like a dilute soup. The SEAPLEX vessel towed nets through Pacific waters to capture debris that ranged from Gatorade bottles to microscopic bits of broken-down plastic. The researchers did over 100 net tows over 1,700 miles, and pulled up plastic in every tow. Goldstein told EarthSky yesterday that she agreed with White’s assessment:

(White is) absolutely right. What she said is completely consistent with everything we’ve found.

Goldstein said there is not enough data to know the true extent of the plastic yet, and there have only been a few research cruises dedicated to studying the problem. But she wrote in the SEAPLEX blog that there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about the consequences of plastic in our oceans:

I think one of the most underrated impacts is the introduction of hard surfaces to an ecosystem that naturally has very few of them. Microbes, plants, and animals that live on hard surfaces are very different than those that live floating freely in the ocean, and adding all that plastic is providing habitat that would not naturally exist out there.

A large piece of plastic with crabs and fish larvae, retrieved by researchers. Copyright 2009 Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

White added that this is not just a problem limited to one region – plastic enters the ocean from coasts around the world.

It’s widespread in the ocean. It’s not restricted to the North Pacific. But that message has been buried in misinformation.

But where did that misinformation come from? Both White and Goldstein were unable to track down the origin of the Texas-sized garbage patch image.

Marcus Eriksen, of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, believes the media created the concept. He said Captain Charles Moore, who conducted a 1999 scientific study on plastic debris in the Pacific, described his Texas-sized study area. Curtis Ebbsmeyer, an oceanographer, subsequently called it a garbage patch. Eriksen said the media grabbed on to these evocative images to create the notorious Texas-sized garbage patch.

The actual area where plastic can be found in the world’s oceans is likely much bigger than Texas, Eriksen said. He founded an organization called 5 Gyres to sail through all five of the world’s ocean gyres to study plastic.

I’ve traveled 20,000 miles of ocean in the last two years, and every time I put a net in, I found plastic.

Eriksen, Goldstein, and White all agree that the image of a dilute soup of plastic is a better way to understand the ocean’s plastic pollution than the inaccurate picture of a floating island of trash. White commented on how sad it is that scientists and the media sometimes have to resort to exaggeration to get people to pay attention.

It’s a shame that any of us have to present data in Texas-sized units so the public can get a clear understanding of concentrations. But we struggle to find some sort of way to conceptualize the problem. I think a dilute soup is a fair way to say it.

So the next time you conjure up an image of the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch, remember: it’s not an island garbage heap. It’s more like a huge, dispersed watery soup of plastic, floating in the oceans of Earth.

January 12, 2011

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