When one reads the name ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’, they imagine a big floating island of trash that one can walk, stand on, with birds feasting on the rubbish while it reeks of a terrible smell. This imagery is at the source of a massive misconception. Recently, in April 2019, when a fire broke out damaged a large part of Notre Dame including its spires, billionaires and philanthropists around the world came together to pledge nearly 1 billion USD for its restoration. However, people came out against this, questioning the fairness of such a large sum being dedicated to the rebuilding of a religious structure and symbol, when it in fact could be used to clear up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
However — it isn’t that simple. While one could reasonably and rationally argue that this sum of money could be better used in environmental conservation, it perhaps isn’t a sum of money that could clear up the Garbage Patch, here’s why — while we may imagine it to be a gigantic patch, the reality is a bit different. Most patches are made up of microplastic, not always visible to the naked eye. Not even satellite imagery shows a big garbage patch, but is more like a soup. Charles Moore, who discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or trash vortex, speculates that there are around 100 million tons of floatsam in the region, while Marcus Eriksen, a research director of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in the US, said, “The original idea that people had was that it was an island of plastic garbage that you could almost walk on. It is not quite like that. It is almost like a plastic soup. It is endless for an area that is maybe twice the size as continental United States.”
Further, oceanographers and ecologists have stated that nearly 70% of marine debris goes down, sinking to the ocean floor. This makes it significantly harder for cleanup activities to take place in an effective fashion. There are other claims — including that there is more plastic in the ocean than plankton, and also that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch that has been growing 10 times each decade, which are untrue and false. While the sheer size of this pollution is problematic, such false news creates an effect of crying wolf too many times, such that when there is an actual news of extreme importance, it runs the risk of being unheeded since all news now is spectacular and extreme.
Angelicque White, an assistant professor of oceanography at Oregon State, said, “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. We have data that allow us to make reasonable estimates; we don’t need the hyperbole. Given the observed concentration of plastic in the North Pacific, it is simply inaccurate to state that plastic outweighs plankton, or that we have observed an exponential increase in plastic.”
“The amount of plastic out there isn’t trivial,” White said. “But using the highest concentrations ever reported by scientists produces a patch that is a small fraction of the state of Texas, not twice the size.”
Hence, while it is perhaps not possible to clean up all of this marine garbage with 1 billion dollars, it still does not undermine the lack of attention this serious environmental issue is receiving. There is a need to reorient our view of altruism, society, and our connection to the environment, before it becomes too late to do so.