In 1997, captain Charles Moore wrote about sailing through a patch of garbage in the Pacific which went on for days. At first, media reports referred to the patch as the size of Texas, then twice the size of the Texas, then five times the size of Texas, and so on. The vision of the garbage patch was also transformed by misleading stock photos of polluted rivers.
Dan Engber, a columnist for Slate, says this idea of the garbage patch is wrong—but it's also comforting, because it allows us to believe our plastic is accumulating in one confined place in the middle of the Ocean, far from us. He talks to Bob about how the truth is actually harder to envision, and also much more dangerous: the plastic garbage patch is more like a soup of contaminants that seep into the food chain.
Let's Face the Music and Dance by Harry Roy & His Orchestra
In some ways, our collective anxiety about humanity's effect on the planet literally floats in a giant mass. You've likely heard about it. You can even picture it.
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FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Estimated to be twice the size of Texas, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch stretches from the coast of California all the way to Japan. In some places, the manmade debris is 90 feet deep!
BOB GARFIELD: The “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” a solid floating landfill of detergent bottles, shopping bags, car tires, volleyballs, cathode ray tubes and baby toys – or not. Dan Engber is a columnist for Slate, where he looked below the surface of the “Garbage Patch” and found something far more amorphous floating in the sea.
DAN ENGBER: A yachting captain in 1997 came across what he described as a plastic soup. He was sailing through a part of the Pacific Ocean where swirling ocean currents kind of gather driftwood and seaweed and, day after day, as he described it, he was seeing garbage in the ocean. And then it wasn't until 2006 that it really started to get a lot of press and then for maybe four years after that it was everywhere. Still, I think that image of it as floating trash persists.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Some claim the garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean is the size of Texas.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: It is a massive floating garbage patch that’s double the size of Texas, and it’s only getting bigger.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: It’s just a garbage patch, which is just a huge wasteland of plastic and debris five times the size of Texas.
DAN ENGBER: And it was the continental United States. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a website devoted to the size of the Garbage Patch, and they point out that you can't observe it in satellite photos. If you’re sailing through it, you wouldn’t even see it. I mean, it’s defined as a part of the ocean where there is a higher than normal concentration of tiny microscopic plastic pollution. And it's floating around and the edges are, [LAUGHS] are shifting in the waves. So no one knows how big it is. It doesn't really make much sense to talk about it as continent-sized or twice the size of Texas.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s degraded plastic?
DAN ENGBER: Yeah, so plastic pollution will break down into smaller and smaller pieces and, in fact, there's reason to think that's more of a concern then tires and cathode ray tubes because these little bits can make their way into the food chain. So I mean, there, there might be more tires floating, on average, in this part of the ocean than in other parts of the ocean but, you know, you’re not going to run aground on the trash island. And I think it's something where there is a scientifically understood phenomenon that happens to be very different in its real appearance than how almost everyone understands it.
BOB GARFIELD: Even the intrepid sailor who got the world's attention to his vivid description back in the ‘90s began a book by walking back his own description. In 2008, he went on NPR talking about it. [LAUGHS]
CHARLES MOORE: And if it’s calm, it sort of looks like a giant salt shaker has sprinkled bits of plastic onto the surface of the ocean.
BOB GARFIELD: And [LAUGHS] in 2009, when VICE did a piece that they called “Toxic Garbage Island” they had to have language in there explaining that it [INDISTINCT] [LAUGHS]
THOMAS MORTON: I came out here expecting to see, like, a trash dump…You just see water…a thousand times worse
than a Coke bottle, ‘cause what it is, is it, it’s every part of a Coke bottle busted down into a little digestible morsel.
DAN ENGBER: Yeah, a lot of this coverage includes, in the storytelling, the discovery that it’s not really an island. This debunking has been done so many times now and it seems to have no effect. The activists on this issue have been talking about how to reframe the discussion of the Garbage Patch so that it's more truthful: Well, should we call it a plastic soup? Maybe we should call it a micro pollution or plastic smog. But none of these things are as easy to understand and worry about. We see the same problem when we’re talking about invisible global warming. We cast about for specific things we can think about, polar bears or the measurements of ice caps.
The real issues are much harder to quantify - how much damage is it, how does it compare to last year, how will it compare to next year? I mean, it makes me really uncomfortable to think that somehow I and lots of other people [LAUGHS] got the wrong idea about this. And I was looking at some of those original stories about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. How did they get this so wrong?
And the interesting thing is many of the stories got it right but the art that went with the stories - photos of trash-filled lagoons in the Philippines or whatever, just to illustrate the idea of garbage in the water – you could read that story carefully but a month later, when you think back on it, you remember the image that you saw. So I think this is a case were somehow the art might have been more of the problem than the text.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, so then your piece in Slate takes an unexpected turn when you conclude that it's actually a benefit to us all that people are making this mistake. Why is it a benefit?
DAN ENGBER: Well, [LAUGHS] I actually have mixed feelings about it. I think it gets people to care about ocean pollution. Otherwise, if we just kind of knew that all the plastic we throw away breaks down and is distributed uniformly across all the oceans of the planet, it’s hard to care that much. But if you can picture every time I toss my soda bottle in the garbage, it's gonna end up adding to this volcano of garbage erupting from the Pacific Ocean, that’s something you can think about and worry about.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s so resonant because we all feel like we've contributed to the “garbage island.”
DAN ENGBER: Yeah, I think that's the power of the image, that, you know, everything bad you've ever done to the planet, you toss something in the ocean and you think it disappears into the infinite depths. No, it’s all being squeezed together into one spot, just to rub it in your face.
BOB GARFIELD: And spurs action even – [LAUGHS] even from the Congress.
DAN ENGBER: There's a Federal Microbead Pollution Act that was passed last year. This gets right at the problem of this microscopic pollution that’s so hard to think about, but the activism that led to it comes out of this great Pacific Garbage Patch moment that took hold in 2007, 2008.
BOB GARFIELD: Mm. You compare it to the ozone hole. It’s not really a vacuum of ozone over the Antarctic, as it’s often envisioned.
DAN ENGBER: Yeah, the ozone story is very similar. This is something environmentalists understood was a problem in the 1970s. You know, we’re releasing these polluting gases into the atmosphere. They’re probably thinning the ozone layer. That’s gonna be bad for everyone. But it was only in 1985 when it was discovered that the effects of all those polluting gases were concentrated in one spot, so there was a seasonal thinning of the ozone layer in one place, and they came up with this great name for it. They called it the Ozone Hole.
NARRATOR: They say increased ultraviolet radiation through a hole in the ozone could raise temperatures, damage farm crops and cause a lot more sunburn.
DAN ENGBER: Like this wound had been ripped open in the air surrounding the planet, and that's what led people to really start to worry about and care about it.
BOB GARFIELD: Isn’t this just kind of a smoking gun for those who would discredit climate worries as alarmist?
DAN ENGBER: Sure, yeah, you can find websites written by climate change deniers who point to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch as another fraud. I think this is the danger of such things. You know, the environmentalists cast about for those images that sort of go viral that get everyone worked up. You know, it helps in the moment but I don't know if it works in the long game.
BOB GARFIELD: Mm. Dan, thank you very much.
DAN ENGBER: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Dan Engber is a columnist for Slate. He wrote, There is No Island of Trash in the Pacific.
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BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media is produced by Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess and Jesse Brenneman. We had more help from Micah Loewinger, Sara Qari, Leah Feder and Kate Bakhtiyarova. Special thanks this week to the crack team at WNYC’s Archives Department. And our show was edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week was Terence Bernardo and Sam Bair.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schacter is WNYC’s vice-president for news. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone,
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.