Keep plastics out of the ocean in the first place but don’t exaggerate or panic about the plastic already there. This is the take-away message of a study by an Oregon State University scientist that is generating news coverage  this month.

Unfortunately, too many people will see a snippet of TV coverage about the OSU work and conclude this is just one more case where publicity-hungry researchers and the news media previously blew an environmental or health issue out of all proportion.

The reality of ocean garbage is somewhere in the middle.

Assistant Prof. Angelicque “Angel” White has taken a detailed look at the “Great Garbage Patch,” the collection of plastic debris and other trash that has gained notoriety in recent years. White found plenty of plastic but she also concluded that much of what people believe about the garbage patch is more mythological than factual.

Little bits of plastic coating the surface of a vast area of the Pacific have generally played into a kind of apocalyptic view of human mismanagement of the natural world. It has been said to equal twice the size of Texas and that the garbage patch is as deep as the Golden Gate Bridge. White’s research destroys both these claims, and also says that contrary to expectations, seaborne patches of plastic do not appear to be increasing in size over time.

She found that the kind of cohesive, easily visible area of bobbing plastic particles is actually about one-hundredth of the geographical size of Texas. This is still a big area — about 2,700 square miles, or about three times the total land area of Clatsop County. That’s a lot of plastic junk, and worrisome, but not something that can be viewed from space. Most plastic can’t even be seen from the deck of a boat.

Putting the problem in easily understood terms of volume, White said, “If we were to filter the surface area of the ocean equivalent to a football field in waters having the highest concentration (of plastic) ever recorded,” she said, “the amount of plastic recovered would not even extend to the 1-inch line.”

Again, this isn’t to suggest that we should turn a blind eye to the problem. Even faint concentrations of a poison can do a great deal of damage.

But the toxicity of plastics is also more complicated than it is sometimes made out to be, White asserts.

Some helpful microbes actually colonize plastic bits and are helped by our litter. On the other hand, some plastics absorb dangerous toxins like PCBs and make it more susceptible to ingestion by fish and other species higher up the food chain.

This issue and others make it highly desirable that we continue to work hard to keep plastics out of the oceans in the first place, according to White. The particles are simply far too dispersed for it to ever be economical or practical to remove them once they are in the water.

We can consider ourselves lucky that ocean plastics are still a small enough problem to be dealt with calmly and methodically. Relatively small-scale efforts like Saturday’s beach-cleanup by the Grassroots Garbage Gang can and do make a real difference. These volunteer efforts keep tons of plastics and other garbage off the beach and out of the North Pacific.

By paying attention now, we can keep the garbage patch from ever getting anywhere near as big as we thought it was.

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