‘Great garbage patch’ in Ocean stirs up controversy

Sections of the press have pounced on news this week that a US professor has said the plastic rubbish patch floating in the Pacific Ocean is not as large as has been claimed.

This may lend weight to environment naysayers but the research points out that the size of the plastic rubbish patch is not insignificant and the plastic is toxic and causes environmental damage and the deaths of birds and sea life.

Angelicque White, assistant professor at the Oregon State University, underlines that her message is not to deny the potential harm of the rubbish but that exaggeration undermines scientists’ work.

She 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.”

White came to these conclusions while researching the relationship between microbes and plastic. One discovery was that photosynthetic microbes were thriving on many plastic particles. She noted that while plastic may be beneficial to some organisms, it can also be toxic, absorbing toxins such as PCB.

She said: “On one hand, these plastics may help remove toxins from the water. On the other hand, these same toxin-laden particles may be ingested by fish and seabirds.

“Plastic clearly does not belong in the ocean.”

Her research also led to question whether trying to remove the rubbish would be feasible or whether the focus should shift to preventing further pollution.

She said: “If there is a takeaway message, it’s that we should consider it good news that the ‘garbage patch’ doesn’t seem to be as bad as advertised.

“But since it would be prohibitively costly to remove the plastic, we need to focus our efforts on preventing more trash from fouling our oceans in the first place.”

Alison Brown

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