OSU: ocean trash exaggerated

CORVALLIS — Claims of an island of plastic garbage twice the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean are bogus and undermine efforts to combat the problem ocean garbage, an Oregon State University researcher said Tuesday.

Angelicque White, an assistant professor of oceanography, said her research shows that garbage in the ocean is a serious issue that must be addressed. However, the actual amount of plastic in the Pacific would only cover an area less than 1 percent the size of Texas, 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," White said.

White also said it was misleading for people to claim that oceans are filled with more plastic than plankton, and that the so-called "great garbage patch" of plastic in the ocean between California and Japan has been growing tenfold each decade since the 1950s.

White has participated in one of the few expeditions solely aimed at understanding the abundance of plastic debris and the impact on microscopic aquatic life.

The expedition was part of research funded by the National Science Foundation through C-MORE, the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education.

White also said recent research by scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution found the amount of plastic in the Atlantic Ocean hasn't increased since the mid-1980s, despite greater production and consumption of materials made from plastic.

She said it remains unknown whether more plastic is sinking or is being more efficiently broken down.

But she noted that cleanup presents additional problems, including trying remove plastic particles from ocean waters without removing phytoplankton, zooplankton, and small surface-dwelling aquatic creatures.

"These small organisms are the heartbeat of the ocean," White said.

She said that, during a recent expedition, she and other researchers discovered that photosynthetic microbes were thriving on many plastic particles.

White also said other factors need to be considered in any cleanup efforts, including estimates it would require an enormous amount of energy.

"On the other hand," she said, "plastic clearly does not belong in the ocean."

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