A “gigantic floating island of trash.” The media has been full of stories about an ocean drowning in plastic for years. It’s great that public awareness about ocean trash has skyrocketed, but awareness built on fundamental misconceptions won’t lead to durable, long term solutions—particularly with respect to plastics. What we need now is rigorous scientific analysis of both the scope of the problem and the best ways to solve it.
I’ve been to—and sailed through—the North Pacific Gyre and the reality is that there is no huge, floating island of trash twice the size of Texas – instead, large areas of the Pacific are a sort of trash soup containing lots of small bits of plastic. And I mean LOTS. Of course to most, the size or viscosity of the trash in the ocean misses the point. Trash shouldn’t be in the ocean; it’s a problem we can and should collectively solve.
But as a scientist, I know that compared to other areas of ocean research, the science of marine debris is still in its infancy and evolving quickly. There is a lot we still don’t know but some new research is troubling. Just last month, researchers published findings that show that plastics may not be just at the surface, but may be widely distributed in deeper waters. While we do not know exactly how much plastic is in our oceans, these findings indicate plastics may be more widespread than previously thought. Because global data on marine debris are fragmented, scientific synthesis is needed and predictive models will be necessary to fully quantify how much plastic is in the ocean, where it is, and what its impacts on marine ecosystems are.
At Ocean Conservancy, we want science to drive the debate. That is why we are supporting a scientific working group at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis to improve the state of the science of ocean trash. This work is just getting underway but is sure to help inform what we can all do about trash in our oceans.