Faculty of 1000

Post-publication peer review

Adrift in an ocean of trash talk

Posted by stevepog on 10 February, 2010

My lesson for today: Don’t argue with an oceanographer over our responsibility for cleaning up the Great Garbage Patch. Actually, don’t argue with an oceanographer over anything marine-based and also don’t call someone (the inspirational Annie Crawley) an oceanographer who isn’t.

Credit: Slate Magazine

I made the mistake of saying that an article in Slate by Nina Shen Rastogi was wrongly titled, as I believed it should be asking how we can clean up the patch, not WHETHER we should bother.

Chief scientist Miriam Goldstein from Seaplex (@seaplexscience on Twitter),  which is The Scripps Institution of Oceanography/Project Kaisei expedition to measure plastic in the North Pacific Gyre, replied:

Actually I agree w headline. Open-ocean cleanup EXTREMELY expensive/technically challenging. Need to carefully consider cost/benefit.

The humbling part wasn’t in being dissed in under 140 characters for my lack of knowledge but in seeing what the important issues are when it comes to a massive area of trash that can’t just be cleared up with a few sweeps by a barge.

Like the Slate article author, I imagined the patch as a large mound of floating rubbish, spinning endlessly whirlpool-style without the plughole to drain out of. I had read of  banking fortune heir David de Rothschild’s headline-grabbing voyage on a yacht made of reclaimed plastic bottles, taking in the North Pacific Gyre on a route from San Francisco to Sydney (a project delayed partly by the extremely ambitious task of building such a boat).

But changing the concept that the Patch really isn’t a Patch at all will take some undoing. Perhaps there’s a word in another language that would better do it justice (and one not so similar to those of cute 80s dolls would bring home the message better anyway).

As Miriam said, cost and benefit are obvious considerations when looking at possible clean-up efforts. As Rastogi said in Slate, “despite the oft-repeated claim that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is “twice the size of Texas,” we don’t really know the exact size of the Patch or how much garbage it contains.” (To Americans, Texas must seem really large: to Canadians, Australians, Russians etc it’s kind of small).

So committing x billion dollars to cleaning up an area of unknown mass and size could be essentially fruitless. Commenters on the article made the wise assertion that cutting the trash pile off at its source (drains, business waste overflows, garbage dumps, discarded material from boats etc.) was the only way to significantly reduce the Patch in the long-term.

In the way that more scientists are presenting sensible future-focused approaches to managing climate change (see original papers, later reviewed on f1000 Biology, from Lawler and Tear et al. for a solid review and another from Graham and McClanahan et al. on coral reef ecosystem stability), so Project Kaisei and other organisations are working on strategic responses to the issue, such as recycling retrieved waste and using large nets to snare bigger pieces of trash and leave marine creatures unharmed.

So arguing with an ocean scientist isn’t a good idea and hopefully government decision makers can come to that same conclusion.


8 Responses to “Adrift in an ocean of trash talk”

  1. Wow, that was a much more mighty tweet than I intended! Coooool. 🙂

    I’m not saying that cleanup is totally impossible, but that’s it’s foolish to spend huge amounts of money before we really understand the problem. For example, we don’t even know where the highest concentrations of trash are – and the trashiest places could (and probably do) change from year to year and season to season.

    While at sea, we did try to come up with a another descriptive term instead of “patch,” but frankly couldn’t come up with anything. We’re taking suggestions!

  2. stevepog said

    Despite my obvious lack of experience in ocean science, it’s simple things like one tweet (and an inspiring talk by the aforementioned Annie Crawley at Science Online last month) that made me want to learn more about this problem.

    I guess that’s the model of a good scientific communicator (not referring to myself but to people like you): get the message out so people are encouraged to educate themselves.

    Maybe you should run a competition on Twitter, such as we have done this week under the #sci140 tag, asking for entries to rename the Patch.

  3. Gopal said

    By all means size up the problem, but do it fast.
    I have a wacko suggestion: we need a huge barge with a giant incinerator! As the barge trawls bits of the garbage, it can be incinerated and that would reduce the size from ‘Texas’ to Washington DC! Let the pacific states (California and Washington) partially fund the exploration.

  4. stevepog said

    Gopal, interesting suggestion. Get the Governator on the phone and he’ll back it with California’s dwindling climate change budget.
    Problem is, the barge would need a scoop the size of Washington to cover the ocean surface area needed to clean up the trash or at least be at sea for at least two years cleaning it up.
    Climate groups may also baulk at the idea of a giant incinerator at sea burning over 100 years of garbage. Though it’s true that out of sight, out of mind for some people.

    • Gopal said

      It’s probably easy to convince Sarah Palin than the Governator ;-).

      Jokes apart, the Garbage island must already be posing ‘climatic’ effects! And it needs to be cleaned up (at least the big chunks) and soon. The federal government can find funds if it wills itself. Try reducing the military and space budgets by half percent each.

  5. The other problem with cleanup is that the plastic pieces are extremely small – mostly less than the width of a nail. A net fine enough to remove them from the water would also catch most of the animal life – zooplankton, fish, squid, and so on. See photos & more detail at the SEAPLEX FAQ – http://seaplexscience.com/faq.

    • Gopal said

      Thanks Miriam. Learnt a great deal from the link and the Oyster Garter blog. I hope seaplex would find a solution someday.

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