A research scientist steps into the communication side of the plastics issue in an effort to improve the accuracy of what is being said to the general public. The environmental community should be thankful.


L – Dr. Angel White, Microbiologist, Oregon State University; R - Floating plastic debris, but would you call this a patch or an island? (Photo: Drew/Algalita)

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The mass communication of the problem of plastic pollution in the North Pacific Gyre has been overblown for several years now.

Many of us have known this. It just took Dr. Angel White, a microbiologist from Oregon State University,to finally come along and publicly set things straight. If you’re an environmentalist, you need to know that she is NOT the enemy. The plastics industry is. Don’t lose track of that. She is merely the voice of truth and reason — which is exactly what scientists are supposed to be.

On Monday of last week, Oregon State University put out a press release titled, “Oceanic ‘garbage patch’ not nearly as big as portrayed in media.” It was the truth. It’s been picked up by over 100 media outlets. For at least 8 years there has been a sound bite that, “There’s a Texas-sized garbage patch floating around in the North Pacific.” It’s been an effective communications device and has served it’s purpose. Bill Maher talked about it on his HBO show in 2009 and Oprah’s website says the following:

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch stretches from the coast of California to Japan, and it’s estimated to be twice the size of Texas. “This is the most shocking thing I have seen,” Oprah says.

That’s a statement that’s incorrect on several levels. But it’s worked. People are now talking about the problem of plastics in the ocean. I was at a gathering of my USC film school buddies yesterday — none of whom have any environmental or science background. I began talking to a group of about a dozen of them about the problem of plastics in the North Pacific. Every one of them already knew about it. The mass communication of this issue has been impressive (much of it thanks to the pioneering efforts of Captain Charles Moore appearing in everything from Rolling Stone to The Colbert Report).

The use of the word “patch” and “Texas-sized” to grab attention matches the “arouse and fulfill” principle I espoused in the second chapter of my book. It has perhaps been a necessary evil in today’s noise-filled media world (as Dr. White talks about below). And while I stated clearly in my book that I would never support anything short of 100% accuracy in the communication of science, I have to say that once inaccuracy has happened, the next step is to correct it.

No need to dwell on who’s guilty for propagating the inaccuracy. Just move on to the next level. Which is what Dr. White is doing — offering up the “mid-course correction” that is needed. So I contacted her to do this short interview — to let her tell about it in her own words. I hope that environmental organizations will eventually reward her — in the same vein as “whistle blowers” — rather than vilify her.

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Randy Olson: Are you now or have you even been a card-carrying member of the American Plastics Council?

Angel White: No. And I’m not an industry shill.

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RO: Are you willing to make public statements about the need to reduce the amount of plastics entering the oceans?

AW: Absolutely. There’s no place for plastic in our marine environment — in our rivers, in our waterways, on our coasts or in our oceans. I say this every time I’m interviewed. It’s interesting to see where this message comes out, in terms of priority, in each interview. Sometimes it’s buried in the article. But definitely, I think we should be reducing the amount of plastic that we use, and we should be making concerted efforts to make sure that plastic doesn’t end up in marine systems.

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RO: Last week you issued a press release titled, “Oceanic ‘garbage patch’ not nearly as big as portrayed in media.” What was your motivation for doing that?

AW: The problem of plastics in the North Pacific has really captured the public’s imagination. There’s been a lot of public interest and a good deal of misinformation. Since returning from the my initial cruise in 2008 to the North Pacific gyre, I’ve given several talks in Oregon with the same message that is in the OSU press release.

The motivation for the press release is that I went on this cruise to the North Pacific in 2008 where I thought I’d see a plastic patch. I was really kind of surprised when I didn’t. So when I started putting together my latest talk and I looked at the degree of hyperbole in the media, I was just surprised that no one had said, “Ah, you know, it’s not the size of Texas — in fact, it’s not even a patch.”

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RO: But you’ve now said it’s only 1% the size of Texas — don’t you think that does a disservice to the public’s understanding just as much as calling it a “Texas-sized patch” because it overly minimizes the problem?

AW: I think calling it “a patch” minimizes the problem. It’s not a patch. Here’s what I think are the three most important points. 1) Plastic is widespread in the global ocean (not just the North Pacific), 2) plastic is small in size and 3) dilute in nature. It’s not a patch — to say it’s a patch of any kind gives a false impression.

On the other hand, there are people who have decided to use the word “patch” — if you’re using the word, I think of “a patch of grass” — a cohesive patch. So then let’s take the highest observed concentrations and move it into a single, cohesive patch. I’m sorry, in the North Pacific it adds up to less that 1% the size of Texas — actually 0.20% to be precise.

It’s not a patch. It’s a “dilute soup.” I believe that is the way Captain Charles Moore has described it. And that is actually a very good way to put it. Unfortunately, it’s not as powerful as “twice the size of Texas.” That was a wonderful word picture that really gave people some pause when they purchased plastic — it made them think, “Man, there’s this island out there and I don’t want to contribute to it.” I think it’s a very sad commentary on the state of the U.S. that you have to be made to think of an island of trash in the oceans before you can be convinced to change your day-to-day actions.

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RO: What sort of flack have you gotten since the press release came out?

AW: Well, for starters, a number of emails from people suggesting that I should work on my resume — that surely I must be paid by the American Chemistry Council. More than half of the emails I’m getting are negative. The positive emails I’m getting are mostly from scientists — from people who are even in the conservation world saying, “Thank you for saying this.”

I’ve gotten a few emails from people who have done work at Midway who say, “It doesn’t matter if it’s the size of Texas or the size of France or the size of your backyard, it’s still a problem.” Actually, I fundamentally disagree with that. The oceans cover 70% of our planet. If it’s only the size of my backyard then I really don’t care about it.

We need to find new ways to conceptualize this problem without hyperbole.

And by the way, I don’t have any funding to do this work. My funding is to investigate elemental cycling and develop optics-based models of primary productivity in the North Pacific. I was only on one cruise where we dealt with plastics. I’m not applying for any funding for this, and I certainly don’t have any non-profits offering me money, that’s for sure. So I’m not financially tied to this problem either way.

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RO: Has the misrepresentation been only from the media?

AW: I don’t think so. A reporter from Canada pointed out to me on the phone yesterday that there are a few sources of confusing messages. A group of graduate students from Scripps went to the North Pacific in 2009 as part of their SEAPLEX project. When you look at the blog of their cruise you see they’re saying the same thing we’re saying — the plastic is small, it’s widespread. But the title of one of their press releases was, “Scientists Find Pacific Ocean garbage patch.” It doesn’t matter what they say after that. It doesn’t matter that they are entirely accurate in the text. The title was “Scientists Find Plastic Patch.”

The title of my press release is basically, “It’s not a Patch, and it’s not as big as Texas.” I say the exact same things as they said in the specifics of the text. But we know that the only thing most people ever see is the title.

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RO: Why do you think this is such a difficult environmental problem to communicate?

AW: At the core of the problem is that this is a case of being doubly “out of sight, out of mind.” Few people are able to even visit the vast open parts of the ocean where this occurs, and when you finally get there, the plastic is so dilute you rarely see it without towing a net.

On the other hand when you force it to that image of looking for plastic islands you’re asking for problems. I just did a talk show interview the other day with a group of people whom you and I probably wouldn’t agree with if we were sitting talking over a beer, but they said, “Look, they keep saying it’s twice the size of Texas, and I know the size of Texas, and I know how to multiply by two, and I know that would be several hundred thousand square miles. So if there’s this patch out there, show me the pictures. Since no one’s showing me the pictures, I read about the research and saw that they had to tow a net for a few hours to fill the bottom of a mayonnaise jar with some confetti, and … that’s not a patch, is it?”

So they’re asking for a response to a very legitimate question. And now we’re stuck with coming up with visuals that appropriately scare people. That’s a tough situation to be in, particularly when we’re all on the same page that the plastic doesn’t belong in the marine environment.

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RO: Do you have a report or paper associated with this press release?

AW: Right now the preliminary data can be found on-line on the C-MORE SUPER HI-CAT web page. The manuscript that is in preparation has a focus that is very different from just looking at the abundance of plastics. The paper will be about microbial diversity and activity on plastic pieces, so it’s not exactly a match to the press release.

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RO: Are you aware that the plastics industry will use your statement to fight efforts to reduce plastics throughout the U.S.?

AW: If you are communicating to the public about a fire in a National Park and you initially say that 90% of the park is on fire, but then revise it to say only 50% of the park is on fire does that mean the crisis is over with? The public will lose a little bit of their sense of urgency with the revision, but it’s then up to you to restate the problem in new terms, sticking with the revised, accurate assessment. That’s all I’m asking for here when I say we need to end the hyperbole and shift from patch/island to dilute soup.

We can look at all the published values of plastic concentrations. The highest published rate is a million pieces of plastic per square kilometer. That’s the value I used to make the calculations of a hypothetical patch size. So while it may seem unfortunate that they would use these data, they are accurate data. To everyone who contacts me, I say, “Look, I’ll send you the spread sheet. You can do the calculations yourself. It’s not very complicated.”

I’m not a policy-maker; I’m a scientist. I’m trying to be very clear about this. In Oregon, people are considering a ban of sorts on plastic bags. I think that these efforts are well intended and could help reduce plastic in our waterways, but it’s also important to make people aware of how much plastic is in their daily lives, and how plastic bags are still only a small part of the overall plastics picture. Just look at the plastic on your keyboard, in your pens, on your clothes, in your car — it’s pervasive in the environment. I personally don’t see the downside to reducing our plastic consumption, and I think plastic bags along with water bottles are a really logical place to start.

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RO: What are the top three most serious ramifications of the plastics in the ocean problem?

AW: First and foremost are the things that are visual such as entanglement of marine animals. Second, ingestion of plastic by birds and other animals. Third, the introduction of toxins in the marine environment. And I would add-in transport of invasive species. And one more — the entire problem of plastic is that it occurs in very dilute concentrations spread out over an extremely wide area. The problem is difficult to study. There is also a segment of plastic debris that is in size ranges that we cannot see and we’re not capturing in net tows, and there may be a whole range of consequences, both positive and negative, for marine food webs that we don’t fully understand at the moment. So there is an insidious nature to the problem that comes with the plastic that is not visible to the naked eye.

In Portland, at the last ASLO Meeting, there were a few talks about nano-plastics that are put into detergents and skin care lotion as exfoliants and abrasives. Researchers are finding extremely high levels of these micro-plastics in urban areas. We can now ask the question of how these nano-plastics impact microbial processes, elemental cycling, and perhaps the more standard question of whether these plastics are being ingested by higher organisms. I think there is a whole range of consequences for plastics in the environment, many that we are not studying at all.

The bottom line is that, as many people say, “Nature is just not natural any more.”

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RO: How do you think today’s ocean compares to the ocean before human impacts?

AW: I’m not sure that the plastic problem is severe enough so far that there have been any significantly negative impacts for the base of the food chain: Marine microbes (speaking only of what I study). If we were to continue adding plastic I can think of a range of things that might happen. You might see shifts in the amount of light that would be available to deeper depths. You might be introducing more toxins to the marine environment. You might have increased deaths of organisms due to entanglement or ingestion.

Those aren’t experiments that we want to do. I think the more relevant comparison is not to some pristine ocean of the past, but to what we want the oceans of our future to look like. From that perspective I think we can agree that we don’t want to leave plastic islands for future generations. And it’s a good thing that such islands aren’t out there yet.

So I say let’s keep working on eliminating plastics from the ocean so one day we can say the worst it ever became was a dilute soup, not islands.

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(NOTE: A huge and sincere thanks to my good friend Chad Nelsen of Surfrider Foundation for his help in crafting these questions)