Reflections on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

May 30, 2017

In February 2009, Captain Charles Moore of the Al-ga-lita Marine Research Foundation spoke at TED and talked trash. Captain Moore told the assembled crowd that plastic waste has despoiled the world oceans, causing undue harm to the myriad of species that call the ocean home. The pollution in the oceans is so great, Moore claimed that “Now, you can buy certified organic produce. But no fishmonger on Earth can sell you a certified organic wild-caught fish.” Moore further detailed the extent of plastic debris in the ocean world in his 2011 book, Plastic Ocean. In it, he claimed, “It will take nothing less than a crusade to stop the unspooling of this man-made horror show in the Pacific, and possibly in all the earth’s oceans.”[1]

Moore’s work captured enormous media attention. Popular magazines and newspapers reported on what became known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. A 2009 New York Times article described it as “Light bulbs, bottle caps, toothbrushes, Popsicle sticks and tiny pieces of plastic, each the size of a grain of rice, inhabit the Pacific garbage patch, an area of widely dispersed trash that doubles in size every decade and is now believed to be roughly twice the size of Texas.”[2]

As an environmental historian, I grew interested in the story of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch not only as an extremely complex ecological and historical problem, but also as a geography that connects humans to a distant environment few very will ever see or experience. Much like politics that emerged over the deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch represents a profound ecological and conceptual space that underscores the human impact on the natural environment.

Over the past three years, I have been tracing the way the story of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has been told since it came to light. On the one hand, it is a story of scientific discovery.  Stories of dedicated scientists traveling the world’s waterways to uncover the ecological consequences of plastics remain a central theme. Captain Moore’s work, for example, fits into this narrative trajectory. The other explores the ecological consequence of plastic waste floating in the ocean. Stories of seals trapped in the yokes of plastic six-pack rings, of sea turtles entangled in a web of discarded nylon fishing nets, or of birds and fish who starved to death because their digestive tracks were engulfed with small pieces of plastic encapsulate a second narrative trajectory.

There are also stories about plastic islands. In 2009, the New York Times avowed, “Afloat in the Ocean, Expanding Islands of Trash.” The Telegraph (UK) proclaimed in 2010 that there was a “Huge Island of Rubbish Floating Off California.” And ABC News reported on a plan by Dutch architectural firm WHIM to use ocean plastics to construct a “recycled island,” declaring, “Pacific Ocean to Receive Plastic Island.”

Yet in reality, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is nearly invisible to the naked eye. National Geographic perhaps best captures the real and imagined seascapes of the Garbage Patch. “For many people,” National Geographic reported, “the idea of a ‘garbage patch’ conjures up images of an island of trash floating on the ocean. In reality, these patches are almost entirely made up of tiny bits of plastic, called microplastics. Microplastics can’t always be seen by the naked eye. Even satellite imagery doesn’t show a giant patch of garbage.”

Image source: NOAA.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) also confronted this issue, arguing that the very name contributes to garbage patch’s misunderstanding.  According to NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, “The name “Pacific Garbage Patch” has led many to believe that this area is a large and continuous patch of easily visible marine debris items such as bottles and other litter —akin to a literal island of trash that should be visible with satellite or aerial photographs.”

So even though there is plastic in all the world’s oceans, the reality is that no such island exists.

The Garbage Patch, though, provides a way to think about visible and invisible forms of pollution and how they shape the stories we tell. In a world where many of the environmental dangers we face are unseen by the naked eye—CO2, microplastics, or toxic chemicals, for example—our stories must be shaped and informed by science and the scientists who understand the complexities of the natural world. It is the only way we can learn about changes to our planet. Yet as Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway reveal in their landmark book, Merchants of Doubt, doubting science has become a hallmark of anti-regulatory right. The science of climate change and rising CO2 levels, for example, has evolved into a political debate based on the uncertainty of the unseen and unknown. What’s more, it is a political strategy that, unfortunately, has proved successful over time.

It is also one that we continue to ignore. In constructing stories of “plastic islands,” news reports sounded the alarm that humans were once again responsible for an environmental calamity of global proportion—a seascape littered with all sorts of plastic waste, bottles and six-pack rings as well as bags, chairs, fishing nets, and toys in various forms of deterioration. In doing so, these stories removed the element of doubt by emphasizing the macroscopic nature of the plastic ocean, rather than the microscopic. But they also created a false reality that serves those who want to undermine sound science. In 2014, for example, Townhall, the conservative website, published an article that called the garbage patch “a hoax,” because there were no “country-sized islands of plastic bags strangling baby birds and sea turtles.” In other words, environmentalists were up to their old alarmist tricks.

So given the complexity of the global plastic pollution problem as well as the anti-science political environment we find ourselves in, it is incumbent to tell truthful stories. Hyperbole will only compound the problem. What’s clear is that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch will remain an ecological catastrophe, the scope of which we have fully yet to understand. But it is not a floating island of plastic. Nor is it a problem we can ignore, irrespective if we can see it from a Google maps image or not.

David Kinkela is an Associate Professor of History at the State University of New York at Fredonia. As an environmental historian, Prof. Kinkela explores the intersections between the human and nonhuman worlds with a particular interest in the flow of man-made objects across natural and political borders. He is currently working on a book tentatively titled, Making Islands of Plastic: A History of Waste, Water, and Petrochemicals.

[1] Capt. Charles Moore and Cassandra Phillips, Plastic Ocean: How a Sea Captain’s Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans (New York: Penguin, 2011), 92.

[2] Lindsey Hoshaw, “Afloat in the Ocean, Expanding Islands of Trash,” New York Times, November 9, 2009.