'Great Garbage Patch' Not So Great After All

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THE GIST

- A well publicized collection of garbage in the Pacific Ocean is not nearly as dramatic as many reports suggest.

- Instead of mounds and towers, most plastic in the sea is tiny and widely dispersed.

- The truth may be worse than the actual hype when it comes to threats toward wildlife and the environment.

It's been called the Great Garbage Patch and "the most shocking thing" Oprah has ever seen: a massive island of plastic in the Pacific Ocean that, according to many reports, is twice the size of Texas, outnumbers plankton, and has killed millions of sea birds.

But many of those claims, according to a new analysis, are huge exaggerations. Others are downright false.

Plastic is definitely a problem in the oceans, both for animal life and the environment, said Angel White, a microbial oceanographer at Oregon State University in Corvallis. But there are not floating towers of milk jugs, toilet seats and rubber duckies swirling in the middle of the ocean.

Instead, the majority of plastic in the sea consists of confetti-like specks that are spread out widely and nearly impossible to see with the naked eye.

Setting the record straight about what's out there is key to regaining the trust of a wary public, White said. In 2008, she joined an expedition with the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education. It was a boat trip from Hawaii to California, through the heart of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

"None of us on that cruise had been to the patch, but we had all heard that it's twice the size of Texas. That's in a textbook," she said. "These statements are so frequent and in so many places that they are accepted as fact. But they undermine the credibility of those advocating for reduction of plastic pollution in the terrestrial and marine environments."

"Plastic is everywhere," and it's insidious, she said. "But it's not a patch."

White's main goal on the research cruise was to look at relationships between plastic and marine microbes. Along with experiments on microbial respiration and productivity rates, she and colleagues tediously counted and sorted pieces of plastic that were caught in nets towed behind the boat.

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