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Ocean plastic trash
These pieces of plastic were taken during trawls as part of a project to study their prevalence in the ocean. Larger plastic pieces can harbor microbes, both beneficial and harmful, scientists have discovered. (Photo contributed by C-MORE project/via Oregon State University)

Reports of an island of plastic trash twice the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean are grossly misleading, an Oregon State University oceanographer said Tuesday.

Angelicque White, assistant professor of oceanography at OSU, said those reports distract public attention from other oceanic garbage issues that need more study and don't receive adequate media attention.

White said that measuring the actual area of the plastic bags found in the North Pacific Ocean shows that the area is actually less than 1 percent of the area of Texas.

"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's research on the issue led to a recent National Science Foundation-funded research cruise to examine plastic patches in the North Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California. She anticipated finding noticeable garbage floating on the ocean's surface, but that didn't turn out to be the case. That expedition was part of research funded by the National Science Foundation through C-MORE, the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education.

In addition, White pored over published literature.

Her conclusion: "The amount of plastic out there isn't trivial. But using the highest concentrations ever reported by scientists produces a patch that is a small fraction of the state of Texas, not twice the size."

In addition, recent research by scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution found that the amount of plastic, at least in the Atlantic Ocean, hasn't increased since the mid-1980s - despite greater production and consumption of materials made from plastic, she pointed out.

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

White also said that the amount of garbage that's underwater has not been adequately studied, in part because it's difficult for researchers and their instruments to easily reach the ocean floor.

"It's easier to get to outer space than to the bottom of the ocean," she said.

White said there is growing interest in removing plastic from the ocean, but such efforts will be costly, inefficient, and may have unforeseen consequences. It would be difficult, for example, to "corral" and remove plastic particles from ocean waters without inadvertently removing phytoplankton, zooplankton, and small surface-dwelling aquatic creatures.

"There's an amazing array of microorganisms that you'd be removing in addition to the plastic," White said.

White also noted that while plastic may be beneficial to some organisms, it can also be toxic. Specifically, it is well-known that plastic debris can absorb toxins such as PCB.

Instead of physically removing the floating garbage, White suggests that beach cleanups are a more effective way to keep garbage from coming in.

"That's where I think we can spend our energy," she said.

Contact reporter Gail Cole at 541-758-9510 or at gail.cole@lee.net.

Mark Floyd of OSU's News and Research Communications office contributed to this story.

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