Big Numbers, Small Numbers

Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach

I read a paper today that said that there are no less than 270,000,000 kilograms of plastic in the ocean, which is about half a billion pounds plus of plastic. So … is this a big number or a small number?

The story is at the Guardian, and they’ve illustrated it with the following picture:

guardian plastic in ocean

Regarding the story, as usual the Guardian doesn’t disappoint—it hypes the danger of the half-billion pounds of plastic. Hey, good news doesn’t sell newspapers, so I can’t fault them. In any case, they say:

More than five trillion pieces of plastic, collectively weighing nearly 269,000 tonnes, are floating in the world’s oceans, causing damage throughout the food chain, new research has found.

Now, I suppose that the good folks at the Grauniad think that with their picture they are showing the “damage throughout the food chain” that they claim plastics cause in the ocean … but look at the picture and think about it for a moment.

Does it look like a) that chunk of plastic is inimical to sea life … or does it look like b) that chunk of plastic is acting a substrate upon which abundant sea life is living and serving as fish food? Call me crazy but I’m going for Choice b), you can see the little striped fish chowing down. Now I know that not all plastic is good for sea life … but that plastic certainly is.

However, I started out with the question about whether 270,000,000 kilogrammes is a big number or a small number. Looking at the extent of the ocean gives us a very different picture … because it turns out that the 270,000,000 kilograms of plastic works out to 200 grams of plastic per cubic kilometer of the ocean. Or in old-school measurements, that’s just under two pounds of plastic per cubic mile of seawater. (Some commenters have noted that most of the debris is at or near the surface, so if you prefer, it’s about 900 grams of plastic per square kilometer of ocean surface.)

Now, I’m willing to agree that there are some kinds of plastic that are likely inimical to sealife. Nylon fishing nets that have been lost and gone adrift, for example, continue to kill fish. But the fish aren’t wasted, they’re eaten in turn by a combination of larger and smaller fish until the net washes ashore. So the nets are just another predator. Not saying I like that, I don’t, particularly when they catch whales and other sea mammals … but it’s not the end of the ocean.

And as for the other small pieces of random plastic … well, I just can’t get all that passionate about the dangers of 200 grams of plastic for every BILLION tonnes of sea water, or if you prefer, the dangers of 900 grams of plastic for every square kilometre of ocean surface (1 cubic km = one billion tonnes).

Now, I can hear you thinking, but Willis, what about the great Pacific Gyre, where the plastic collects? First, it’s not like most people think, where you could walk on the plastic and there are islands and such. The density is much higher than the global average, but it’s still only about 2-3 kg per cubic kilometre, or about 5 kg/square km.

However, as a long-time fisherman, I’d bet big money that there is MORE sea life in the Gyre than in equivalent blue-water ocean near the Gyre. The blue water is a desert, in part because there’s nothing for life to grow on. Many kinds of sea life require a “substrate”, something solid to attach to so it can grow. As a result, anything that floats, and I mean anything, will rapidly attract life, just as in the Guardian’s “scary” picture above.

In closing, I don’t like plastic in the ocean, and I’m very, very conscious about it when I’m at sea. I never throw plastic into the ocean. However, as an ocean problem, it’s way, way below things like overfishing and pollution. Those are the real dangers, not a couple hundred grams of plastic in each billion tons of sea water. That’s a small number.

Best to all,

w.

PS—If you disagree with someone, please QUOTE THEIR EXACT WORDS so everyone can be clear just what your objection might be.

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207 thoughts on “Big Numbers, Small Numbers

    • Radiation worries? Here is a table of common items from World Nuclear .Orgs web site
      Table 8: Activity concentrations of NORM in building materials (Bq/kg)
      Material Ra-226 Th-232 K-40
      Concrete 1-250 1-190 5-1570
      Aerated concrete 109818 <1-220 180-1600
      Clay bricks 1-200 1-200 60-2000
      Sand-lime bricks and sandstone 18415 10959 5-700
      Natural building stones 1-500 1-310 767011
      Natural gypsum <1-70 <1-100 7-280
      Cement 7-180 7-240 24-850
      Tiles 30-200 20-200 160-1410
      Phosphogypsum 4-700 19360 25-120
      Blast furnace slag stone and cement 30-120 30-220 –
      So, while near the Fukishima (and Chernobyl) reactors the levels are lethal or very dangerous, ocean water levels of 3Bq/m3 are (as the article states) many orders of magnitude below any concern, considering that natural radiation is around 14Bq/L – and a liter is much smaller than a cubic meter…(what your original article puts forward – the 3Bq/m3)
      From Dailykos.com
      The average radioactivity of seawater is about 14 Bq/L of which 88% is from naturally occurring potassium-40 (K-40). About 7% is from anthropogenic fallout from atmospheric nuclear weapons testing and nuclear accidents like Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima Daiichi (2011). So there is about 13 Bq/L of natural radioactivity on average is the oceans. The rest of both links is also interesting to read to put some perspective on radiation and everyday life.
      On the other hand Solar Power Satellites seem to be the best way to generate power for humans, we can do it with current technology and have real power transmitted to earth within ten years. Better than the payback for fusion research has been (so far)!

      • With regard to solar satellites I recall similar claims that they would be viable in a decade. Trouble is those claims were made 40 years ago. In 1973 Peter Glaser was granted U.S. patent number 3,781,647 for his method of transmitting power from a satellite to ground using microwaves from a very large antenna (up to one square kilometer) on the satellite to a much larger one, now known as a rectenna, on the ground.
        Now setting aside the technical issues involved in the transmission and the associated risks the real killer is the cost to orbit of the SPS. Studies showed launch costs need to be around L $100–$200 per kilogram of payload to low Earth orbit are needed if SPS are to be economically viable. Current launch costs vary from $3000 to $13000 per kg, Larger launch weights tend to be in the more expensive range with the average for sizable satellites being around $10,000 per kg.

      • the most dangerous radioactive isotopes are those qwith a short half life. Long half lives tend to be less radioactive.
        Forget solar, go for Liquid thorium reactors. plenty of fuel and no possibility of runnaway chain reactions.

      • So far, the payback on fusion is zero. And the payback on solar power satellites is zero. Are you saying one zero is better than the other?
        If I had to choose I’d put my money on fusion. Both technologies could be made to work. When they’re both viable I’d guess fusion would be hundreds of times cheaper.
        Chris

      • Jolly Farmer: Re “skyrocketing” beta measurements. Beta emitters are created in our atmosphere as the result of cosmic radiation and high energy particles interacting with the earth’s atmospheric molecules. The predominant beta emitter is carbon-14 and other beta emitting nuclides include H-3 and Be-10. A nice blast from the sun will increase the number of beta emitters in the atmosphere. Just saying that there is an uptick in atmospheric beta measurements doesn’t mean squat without an analysis of the nuclide(s) causing the uptick. If an analysis shows an uptick in these natural radionuclides, it is probably due to the sun. Other natural air borne beta emitters includes Radon daughter products which are and can be released via a number of mechanisms including man stirring up the earth, a volcano or a forest fire. The article you cite is just another alarmist, Chicken Little article. I know for a fact that the cited measuring stations analyze for the nuclides. The article made no attempt to include this information. Deception by omission.

      • Solar satellites will never fly – because the only difference between a solar satellite and a directed energy weapon is targeting.


      • jolly farmer
        December 11, 2014 at 1:55 am
        How much caesium 137 or strontium 90 would be normal in building materials or sea water?
        Are these readings from “natural radiation”?
        http://www.enviroreporter.com/2014/12/sky-high-radiation-readings-across-the-u-s/
        All must be fine. We have NOAA and the EPA keeping a close eye on things. Readers here have complete faith in these organisations, I’m sure.

        The levels of those isotopes wold be directly related to the age, composition and source of the materials. Uranium accumulates in clays and silts for instance, so there would be background levels of Cs and Sr in the those materials in proportion to the parent isotope levels. Same goes for sea water. You also want to toss in K-40, commonly found in bananas and which occurs in the bananas at such levels that large shipments can occasionally trip radiation alarms in shipping terminals.
        As regards radiation levels, you run into some issues that are “precautionary” – think lawyer speak – as opposed to “scientific.” Current assessments of risk from radiation are based on a linear extrapolation from known levels of serious hazard and a simpleminded assumption that less is always better. However, there is increasing evidence that if exposures drop below> certain levels then the kinds of disease processes associated with radiation begin to increase once more. There is also some active research into why this might be and the best evidence seems to be that we actually need some exposure to keep chromosomal repair mechanisms tuned up and operating properly. Too much radiation and they are swamped by damage and simply can’t keep up. Too little and they slack off and damage accumulates without repair. There is no fixed level of “natural” background radiation and in fact Svensmark’s cosmic-ray hypothesis regarding cloud formation leans on “natural” cosmic radiation variability, mediated by the sun, as a causal agent in cloud formation.

      • I can imagine the “streamers” that would be produced by that microwave power beam! Hate to be in an airplane that gets off course in bad weather…

      • Well Keith it sounds to me that “Rectenna” is an appropriate name for that contraption; it’s really a shitty idea.
        The problem of gathering solar energy is quite simple to understand.
        At the moment without being touched by human hand, solar energy reaches us at ground level at about 1KW/m^2 under ideal conditions. I have an electricity source just a few feet from where I am typing that is several megawatts per square meter.
        So the trouble with free clean green renewable solar energy, is that it is spread so thinly, and it is NOT cheap to gather that free stuff up.
        Even so, it fries our brains if we spend too much time out in it at that radiant incidence level.
        So if we gather it in space where we can get it cranked all the way up to 1360 W/m^2 (I thought the number was 342 ?) Wow, and we have to launch all that tonnage of collector up into orbit for a 36% gain in energy density. Remember how damn big that Tonopah collector is in California ?
        So now we transmit if down to earth. Whooopee !! Do we transmit it to reach earth at more than 1,000 W/m^2 so we have a smaller cheaper collector; but one that will incinerate our brains faster, or do we thin it out some more, so that surfers can play in it all day without getting rectennated.
        So now how big does a rectennal solar farm have to be ??
        Seems like this makes loons look highly intelligent.
        Well they are pretty anyhow.

      • “””””…..If I had to choose I’d put my money on fusion. Both technologies could be made to work. When they’re both viable I’d guess fusion would be hundreds of times cheaper.
        Chris…..”””””
        Well Chris, you would be betting on a sure loser. What is your basis for stating: “Both Technologies could be made to work. ” ??
        Fusion does work in the sun and other stars, but the real energy source there is Gravitation, which sucks.
        There isn’t enough raw materials or space, on earth to make a gravity powered fusion reactor.
        And the only other available force to use to create controlled fusion is the Coulomb force of electro-magnetism, and EM does not suck; it blows.
        So trying to compress a hot plasma with the Coulomb force, is like trying to PUSH a railway train full of coal with a piece of rope.
        There’s an annoying little theorem, known as Earnshaw’s theorem, that says that can’t work.
        So nyet on earthly fusion.

    • That’s one of the things about nuclear science. Before we ever touched it, or used it, or created bombs with it… radiation was extremely well understood. We have the ability to record levels of radioactivity that are as harmless as a banana. So whenever I see these numbers about Fukushima, or Three Mile Island, or for that matter even Chernobyl and Pripyat, I don’t worry.
      Since I spent several years working at a nuclear facility, I had to take courses and learn a lot more about it than the average person ever does. I still remember taking a meter into downtown Banff (in the mountains) and recording levels higher than in our shop.
      I trust the people involved in tracking Fukushima, because I used to work with one of them. I’ve never met a more honest man, or a group of people more dedicated to safety.

    • @ Jolly Farmer:
      Natural Radioactivity by the Ocean (Per Liter average for each nuclide listed first; total activity in oceans follows); Activity
      Nuclide Per Liter Pacific Atlantic All Oceans
      Uranium 33 mBq/L 22 EBq 11 EBq 41 EBq
      Potassium 11 Bq/L 7400 EBq 3300 EBq 14000 EBq
      Tritium 0.6 mBq/L 370 PBq 190 PBq 740 PBq
      Carbon 14 5 mBq/L 3 EBq 1.5 EBq 6.7 EBq
      Rubidium 87 1.1 Bq/L 700 EBq 330 EBq 1300 EBq
      The activities used in the table are from 1971 Radioactivity in the Marine Environment, National Academy of Sciences. The total activities calculated for individual and all oceans are derived from the first column multiplied by the volume (data available) of the oceans. 1 Bq= 1 disintegration/second.
      EBq = 10E18 (or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000) PBq=10E21. There are other naturally occurring nuclides in the ocean. The per liter sum of just these five nuclides is 12.13 Bq/L.
      The articles you cite indicate up to 2 Bq/liter of Cs-137 detected in the water. As one article indicates, this activity is well below any health concern standards. As all sea critters are bathed in 12 Bq/L anyway, does anyone think an extra 1 or 2 Bq is going to make any difference or danger? Activity levels were likely twice as high when life began in the seas and sea critters are well adapted these extremely low levels of radiation.

    • I wouldn’t worry about any claim made by “enenews” either. Anti-nuclear fear propaganda does the same thing with exaggeratedly ginormous sounding sums without factoring what those levels actually indicate when broken down into a relative context.

      • enenews is a news aggregator. There are no “claims”. For example, would you expect NHK to put out anti-nuclear propaganda?
        Pointing out that three reactor cores melted down, four spent fuel pools were damaged, and that attempts to bring the situation under control are failing is not propaganda.
        Would you class the “ginormous sounding sums” that can be found in reports from TEPCO as “anti-nuclear fear propaganda”?
        9 months to tame nuclear plant?
        http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704613504576268470471321638
        Not going so well, is it?

      • enenews is as much a ‘news aggregator’ as the National Enquirer is.
        No fuel pools were damaged.
        The situation is being controlled.

      • “For example, would you expect NHK to put out anti-nuclear propaganda?”
        I would expect NHK to go crazy because Japanese are very scared of radioactivity.
        In Fukushima, there was up to 965 Bq/l radioactivity in water due to Iodine-131. In Finland the average natural radioactivity in drilled well water is 460 Bq/l. Average. All natural radon gas.

      • Jolly Farmer – you should never fly. There is a lot of radiation at 10 km altitude. Even at the altitude of Denver, CO or Santa Fe, NM there is an increased radiation.

    • Jolly Farmer: you ask how much radioactivity there is in common building materials. Here is the Health Physics Society website that will give you lots of information on background radiation. Note that data is presented in Ci and Bq. These are just different units that measure the same thing. Building materials are listed about halfway down.
      http://www.umich.edu/~radinfo/introduction/natural.htm
      Cesium is a biological analog of calcium. Calcium is used in all sorts of biological processes, e.g. neuronal transmissions and bone building. There is a vast amount of calcium in the oceans. Biological organisms will take-up cesium proportionally to the calcium/cesium concentrations. Therefore there is normally very little take-up of cesium in ocean organisms because there is very, very little radioactive cesium in the oceans. Additionally, the natural turn-over of cesium in an organism mimics the natural turnover of calcium so it is unlikely any accumulative effect will be seen. Disclaimer: I can’t be sure this is true for all oceanic organisms, but I have some knowledge it is true in fish. Fish caught within the relatively undiluted plume near Fukishima did contain radionuclides from it, but I’ll have to find the studies that tell what nuclides and how much. My recollection is that the fish were approaching concern levels, but not considered particularly dangerous.

      • I am aware that there is background radiation. My concern is for caesium 134, 137, strontium 90 and Lord knows what else leaching into the Pacific. Very little monitoring is being done.
        TEPCO doesn’t know where the 3 coriums are. They hope to have robot technology to allow a clean-up to start in 2020. Don’t hold your breath.

      • Cesium 137 is radioactive but natural cesium extracted from a mine is not. Most cesium is used in making a liquid called cesium formate which is a low viscosity heavy liquid (2.4 g/l or ~ 21/2 times the weight of a litre of water). It is used as a drilling fluid in deep oil wells (North Sea, etc.) for floating the drill cuttings and as a counterweight to the oil in the reservoir to control well finishing. Alternative solid powders slurried in the drill water for weighting agents, like barite, make the fluid too viscous for deep wells.
        Remarkably, tests on toxicity showed cesium formate it to be completely benign to humans and the environment. It is inert and even at high temperatures and pressures at depth with harsh reactants like hydrogen sulphide in the oil formation, it is unreactive. Because of its density and low viscosity it is also easily recovered. A saturated solution, containing about 70% cesium formate, sells for ~$6,000/barrel, so yeah, you want to recover it.

      • The question I would ask is: if the (many) above ground nuclear tests in the Pacific seem to not have had any detectable effect – why then would Fukushima?

    • Need I re-quote George Carlin from the 5 December post here on WUWT?
      “And if it’s true that plastic is not degradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: the earth plus plastic. The earth doesn’t share our prejudice toward plastic. Plastic came out of the earth. The earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place. It wanted plastic for itself. Didn’t know how to make it. Needed us. Could be the answer to our age-old egocentric philosophical question, “Why are we here?” “Plastic… asshole.” -George Carlin

    • Seems like 269,000 tonnes is about the size of one modern oil tanker or container ship.
      The ocean can probably swallow such ships without so much as a burp.
      Not a fan of seeing turtles et al with plastic necklaces; but if all of that junk is coagulating in that one place, seems like a good place to go wit a couple of empty takers and scoop all that stuff up.

  1. As a sea angler I hate the stuff, always catching on your lines and lures.
    Okay perhaps fish don’t suffer too much, but turtles do, many turtles have died from ingesting plastic.

    • The principal problem here is that bananas need some kind of protective covering during the growing phase, so plastic sheeting is used. Heavy rains wash the plastic sheets down to sea and the turtles mistake them for one of their favourite foods jellyfish.
      Just another example of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

    • Thanks, Stuart. I don’t like it either, for the reasons you list. However, despite finding evidence that sea turtles ingest plastic, and that occasionally it may kill one, I don’t find anyone making your claim that “many turtles have died from ingesting plastic”. Do you have a scientific citation for that claim? Because I just laugh at puff pieces from Greenpeace and the like …
      w.

  2. 200 grams of plastic for every BILLION tonnes of sea water
    = 1 part plastic per 5 trillion parts ocean.
    “The solution to pollution is dilution.”

    • Subtract recovery cost; likely to put it in the minus column for recovered value. Also destruction of attached sea life- see Wills’ photo.

  3. Willis,
    The majority of plastic floats on the surface so your calculation of 200g plastic per billion tonnes of water may be a tad misleading. Perhaps an area calculation is more appropriate.
    In any event, I have no problems with floating plastic as it provides a habitat and shelter for many species – not unlike natural rafts of pumice and volcanic ash which can form thick floating ‘Islands’ many kilometres across.

    • Maybe thats the answer – we need to add something to the plastic to make it heavier.
      Normally this is done by adding analogues of carbon. For example, the analogue chosen for making venetian blinds heavy is (or used to be) lead – chemically lead resembles carbon in many respects, it can participate in many of the same chemical reactions, which is maybe part of the reason why lead is so horribly toxic.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Periodic_table#mediaviewer/File:Periodic_table_(polyatomic).svg
      There are other alternatives, such as silicon – oh dang, lets just use glass… 🙂

      • In 20 years of sailing the oceans I didn’t find plastic to be much of an issue except near large cities in the developing world. Lots of third world countries dump plastic in the ocean and wait for the tides to take it away.
        New years day on Phi Phi Island, Thailand some years back the harbor was full of thousands of floating black plastic garbage bags from the early morning cleanup. We were at anchor and could almost walk to shore on the bags they were that thick.
        Nylon is heavier than sea water and normally sinks to the bottom. Poly is lighter than sea water and floats.
        nylon nets and lines will sink to the bottom unless buoyed by floats. Poly floats on the surface until enough life grows on it to sink to the bottom, or until it washes ashore.
        Sunlight breaks down poly fairly rapidly, but UV resistance can be improved through additives (black poly typically last longer than yellow). nylon is resistant to UV.
        Floating poly is an advantage if you are anchoring in coral. It will float free, while nylon will sink and chafe until it fails. Pure chain will wrap itself around the coral as the boat shift on the tide, ever shorting until either the boat is pulled under or the chain breaks. So a poly rode with a chain head is preferred. A float (use an inflated fender) at the chain/poly junction will float the end of the chain above the coral, so the poly doesn’t chafe.
        Black plastic bags are a real menace in SE Asia. They float just under the surface and get wound around propeller shafts, working their way past the seals and gumming up the shaft bearings, overloading the engine. The problem can be hard to find.

      • Well adding weight needlessly to plastics, simply increases shipping costs in all kinds of ways. Cardboard boxes for shipping heavier items need to be reinforced, further increasing the shipping costs and also the tonnage of stuff that needs recycling.
        Increasing the weight of something is almost never a productive idea.
        But the packaging of consumer and consumable products is a way overbloated industry anyway.
        My wife sometimes pays over $32 per gallon for drinking water, which she gets in little 4 or 6 ounce plastic bottles. And they say gasoline is expensive.
        The bubble package is one of the dumbest inventions of a supermarket trained naked ape.
        My local “green” supermarket, that prides itself in its greenness, and charges more than double the price for some stuff such as “organic” brown eggs, which my wife thinks are great. Eggs are white and yellow and come in an almost hermetic package, that doesn’t get sprayed on.
        And if you buy the pricy “organic” milk, you can then walk over to the opposite corner of the green store, and purchase every imaginable chemical additive that you want to add to your organic foods, including 57 varieties of Omega 3 / 6 fish oils, that come from grinding up the krill that whales want to eat or all the menhaden or sardines, that game (food) fishes eat.
        Any wonder the sea is losing its food fish, when all the bait species are being slaughtered for yuppie food additive chemicals. I believe you can buy chemical food additives in our green store that start with every letter of the alphabet from A to Z, and then a bunch of Greek ones also.
        But the locals who frequent the place are deserving of being fleeced anyway. They are the ones who vote for the duffers who run California.
        But I’m with Willis. Never toss anything plastic into the ocean. The rule I like to use on adding stuff to the ocean is very simple and understandable.
        Don’t put anything in the ocean until after you have eaten it. (or drunk it).

    • Yes, I came to post this as well. I think the article would do well to include a calculation per sq km of ocean surface.

    • It’s about 900g per square km, still a small number.
      No power here, big storm, much rain, hooray!
      W.

      • Should be enough out there Willis that you could even go out there and waterboard yourself.
        Could be an interesting experiment.
        G

      • So your calculation was very wrong then. You assumed that there are observation of plastic all the way to the bottom of the oceans. Quite a feat. Erikson’s observations are from the uppermost 1 meter…..
        Embarrassing. Big numbers. Enormous mistake on your part. Perhaps you should correct your mistaken calculation?

      • Willis,
        Since barnacles and other marine life eventually weight the floating plastic down to the point that it sinks and some percentage eventually washes ashore, I imagine the real answer is somewhere between your two calculations. It depends on whether the estimates given were for the total amount of plastic ever dumped into the oceans or the amount currently floating. I’m guessing it is for the total amount ever dumped. For that case we would need to know the half-life of the plastic. That should be the the amount of time needed for half of it to leave the near surface sink to the bottom or was ashore.
        Looking at the picture provided and sailing a few years in the N.W. Caribbean where an awful lot is dumped daily, I would bet the half-life to be somewhere between 2 and 5 years.

      • rooter December 12, 2014 at 5:18 am Edit

        So your calculation was very wrong then. You assumed that there are observation of plastic all the way to the bottom of the oceans. Quite a feat. Erikson’s observations are from the uppermost 1 meter…..
        Embarrassing. Big numbers. Enormous mistake on your part. Perhaps you should correct your mistaken calculation?

        First, a lot of the plastic, particularly the small stuff, sinks to the bottom. That’s why Erikson’s figures are not observations. They are the result of a computer model that figured out the total plastic in the entire volume of the ocean, not just the top metre of the ocean as you claim.
        Next, for those that wanted a figure per square metre, I gave that in the comment you are replying to … which you seem not to have noticed when you say I should “correct my mistaken calculation”. Been there, done that, open your eyes.
        Finally, in fact the answer is likely somewhere in between the two estimates (200 grams per square km and 900 grams per cubic km) … and in neither case is my calculation an “enormous mistake”, nor are any of the numbers “big numbers”. No matter how you try to spin it, it’s still less than a kilo of plastic, whether per square or cubic kilometre.
        Sorry, rooter, but your claims are rooted …
        w.
        PS—Entering a conversation with your first comment being so aggro is very bad tactics. It turns people against you immediately, and makes it much less likely that you’ll get traction even if you were right. And when you’re wrong, as in this case, it just makes you look petty and vindictive.

      • You could do yourself a service by reading the study Willis:
        “However, we stress that our estimates are highly conservative, and may be considered minimum estimates. Our estimates of macroplastic are based on a limited inventory of ocean observations, and would be vastly improved with standardization of methods and more observations. They also do not account for the potentially massive amount of plastic present on shorelines, on the seabed, suspended in the water column, and within organisms.”
        You didn’t even read the title:
        “Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea”
        Afloat Willis. Afloat.
        Your calculation is just wrong. Correct it.
        Perhaps traction is not for you.

  4. “Per cubic km of the ocean” seems like the wrong measurement, since plastic tends to remain near the surface of the ocean. Wouldn’t it be more accurate only to count surface water?
    Also, plastics break down into smaller and smaller pieces basically forever, so it seems reasonable that all plastic in the ocean will eventually become food, not substrate.

    • I believe he did: “The density is much higher than the global average, but it’s still only about 2-3 kg per cubic kilometre, or about 5 kg/square km.”

    • Not food, per se, but roughage. Plastics, especially polyethylene, are routinely added to cattle feed to provide, supplement, or replace roughage. Plastic pellets can be recovered, washed, and recycled, another advantage over natural roughage.

      • What a relief. My hens just ate a bunch of styrofoam. So they will be fine.
        I don’t think we’ll do the recovery unless maybe it will help the girls remember to feed the hens and not to leave any shipping materials outside.

    • I was wondering about plastics breaking down and would like to know what actually happens at that point. Will it be food? Or will it be a harmful substance? Are some plastics more destructive that others?

      • Thanks for an interesting question, Hexe. One of the more curious recent findings is that much of the small plastic has “divots”, small areas that appear to have been eaten by some kind of creature or another. I would assume that there are bacteria that are capable of consuming plastic, because there is a goodly amount of energy locked up in it.
        w.

  5. I certainly don’t want to see sea turtles or any other sea life maimed & killed in this way. I live in Hervey Bay, Qld, Australia & there are very many turtles here. I see some every time I go out fishing (recreational) or whale watching .
    Plastic rubbish more likely washes up on the seaward side of Fraser Island.
    The real reason for posting is to express how absolutely proud I am of our Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, our Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and the whole of our current government.
    They are standing up to the strategic barrage of the insidious green blob. Well done & keep going in this noble fight.
    Great News – Bill McKibben announced that between the Keystone & Galilee Basin, the Lima talks are a waste of time. YAHOO BILL!!! Thanks for the great news.
    Lastly, Tony Abbott today announced that we are planning to help the Ukraine with Uranium & Coal. These people surely need help as do so many others. People around the world, with a genuine heart, do care.

  6. I don’t want to diminish the problem and don’t like poor stewardship of resources. But I’ve always wondered about the consensus question. If plastic were CO2 and sea level were temperature, I’m sure you could find 97% or more of scientists responding to a carefully crafted poll somewhere to agree that mankind via hydrocarbon via plastics is causing sea level to rise, and I’m sure someone could put spin on it to raise taxes or other costs to the public.

  7. It may not be the apocolytic disaster infered, but Id still be happier to have governments spending money to remove plastic from the oceans rather than on trying to reduce CO2

    • Do what we do, when you see some plastic rubbish lying in the street, pick it up and put it in a waste bin. If enough folk do that every day as a matter of habit things would get better very quickly.

      • reminds me of a Philipino friend I was visiting many years ago. He was commenting on how much trash was strewn about the neighborhood as he proceeded to un wrap a fresh pack of cigarettes and throw the empty pack and wrapper from the new pack on the ground. I pointed out much as you stated Keitho, if he would stop adding to the problem and pick up a little extra then there would be no trash problem. There was a glimmer but not sure if he took the “lesson” to heart.
        Cheers,
        Joe

  8. According to the NOAA website there is about 20,000,000,000 Kg of Gold dissolved in the Ocean, so it would seem that our Gold pollution problem is more pressing than our plastic pollution problem. Frankly, removing all that gold seems the more attractive prospect because … gold.
    Most people do not have a good feel for numbers. It is high time we started getting honest with one another as to what skills people actually possess. Rather than our current high-stakes testing which creates a culture of deception and pedagogy aimed at creating successful test-takers on a deadline, we should transition to proper mastery based training whose end-point is a mastered skill rather than an arbitrary calendar date.
    We have done a poor job of teaching people what they don’t know.

    • “We have done a poor job of teaching people what they don’t know.”
      Common sense and critical thinking, a dying art…

    • I forget the name of the comedian, but he has a full bit on how horrid the grapefruit is, and how it co-opts the good name of the humble grape. Seems they named the grapefruit after the grape (in the comedy routine) so that people would think it actually might taste good. But the only thing good about the grapefruit is that it can be used to measure the size of tumours…
      I think good reports such as Willis’ here might be enhanced if the ratio could be reduced to, say, a swimming pool or a bathtub. Or a grapefruit…

    • 269,000 tonnes of plastic versus 20,000,000 tonnes of Gold
      so there is approximately 100 times more gold pollution in the oceans than plastic pollution.

    • Removing all that gold from the ocean is a dumb idea.
      Gold, (the riches of the Americas) caused the first period of runaway inflation in history, in the Elizabethan 1500s.
      Spanish pirate plundered the Americas, and carted all that useless metal (almost, back then) off to Europe, where people were too busy getting drunk on wine, to bother producing anything of value (consumer goods), so the price of everything went up to absorb all the cash floating around.
      The consumer price index went up by a factor of 6 in about 75 years, and then leveled off.
      England escaped that inflation, because Queen Elizabeth I met the English pirates at the docks, and confiscated what they had stolen off the Spanish pirates, and she threw it all in the Royal coffers. Basically used it to buy the British Empire.
      After that, the CPI stayed level at the new 6X level until the USA went off the gold standard in the 1930s. Then it started on a new inflationary ramp at about the same growth rate as in the 1500s, and we have been on that ramp ever since, as governments all around the world try to outdo each other in printing money, without making anything more to buy with it.
      So leave all that useless gold in the ocean where it belongs; we have no good use for it, other than making more Italian Gold chains to wear around our necks.
      Mr. T would drown in a flash if he actually went and jumped into the ocean. but that would return some gold to where it properly belongs.
      I’m with the Rhine Maidens on that; leave the gold in the water.

      • Except for me. I want some of that gold. But nobody else. Actually, George, I’ll share some of it with you. But nobody else. Wouldn’t want to disrupt the economy any more than it already is.
        I don’t need much, just enough to buy a private 747 and keep it maintained and fueled for the rest of my life, and a few houses and other toys, and maybe enough to buy a few elections and Senators, Congressmen, and Judges.
        Oh look… I’m starting to think like a liberal.

      • Don’t forget… most countries uses scheduled inflation to effectively deflate the value of their national debts.

      • You must be a Rip van Winkle type; A 747 !!
        Hell, what I want in my garage, with fuel ticket, is an F-22 Raptor. I’d settle for a quad of 20 mm cannons, with a red button on the gear stick of my Subaru Impreza. I don’t like traffic jams.
        G

  9. I’m not a big proponent of Wikipedia – however for a simplistic explanation here – its worthwhile. Willis is even more right than he states:
    “The Great Pacific garbage patch, also described as the Pacific trash vortex, is a gyre of marine debris particles in the central North Pacific Ocean located roughly between 135°W to 155°W and 35°N and 42°N.[1] The patch extends over an indeterminate area, with estimates ranging very widely depending on the degree of plastic concentration used to define the affected area.
    The patch is characterized by exceptionally high relative concentrations of pelagic plastics, chemical sludge and other debris that have been trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre.[2] Despite its enormous size and density (4 particles per cubic meter), the patch is not visible from satellite photography, nor is it necessarily detectable to casual boaters or divers in the area, as it consists primarily of a small increase in suspended, often microscopic particles in the upper water column.”
    Not typically visible to even boaters in the area … consists mostly of a small increase in suspended microscopic particles. While there are areas of visible debris they tend to be exception not the rule.
    Certain weather patterns are conducive to breaking off larger more durable debris at times, which is why for example the Hawaiian island of Kauai at times see ocean debris wash on shore. In particular highly coveted Japanese glass fishing floats (and at times bottles) – some of which have been at sea for decades.

    • Yes, there are many pictures. They show bottles, bags, baubles, bangles, all sorts of stuff. Unfortunately, they’re all faked. Mostly used on econut sites to fool the gullible.

  10. Having spent many happy hours on beaches on holiday looking at all the stuff the tide brings in, trying to identify what it was and how long it had been in the water. Much of what washes ashore in the UK has not been in the sea long but any that had been around for some time had much growth on it like it’s own little ecosystem.
    As for the point about radiation back in the days of the protests at Greenham Common someone said they had a list of “military establishments” that had high incidents of some types of cancer. There was as expected a call for this list to be published in the public interest, it was of places like Edinburgh castle and such like all on granite bedrock.
    James Bull
    James Bull

    • Also they assume that the plastic never ever ever breaks down completely but just floats around in smaller and smaller bits but like the oil in the Gulf of Mexico there are bugs that like the stuff to eat. Not my cup of tea but each to it’s own.
      James Bull

  11. People have asked here about surface area and plastic so I’ve done a few calculations as I wondered about it myself.
    Using the following figures:
    – standard grocery bag at 5.5g area 30cm by 50cm when laid out flat
    – Worlds Oceans 335,258,000 km2
    I calculate that the 270E6 kg of plastic equates to 7,364km2 of plastic in the oceans which is approx. 22m2 plastic per km2 of ocean (or 0.0022% area coverage).
    However, not all plastic as the surface area to mass of a grocery bag as thicker things like ropes and plastic parts would be much less.
    In reality, due to some plastic sinking and lower surface area/weight plastic parts the figure is much lower than 22m2 per km2 of ocean and is probably much lower than 10m2 per km2. Still something of a pollution problem but helps to put a feel on the figures.
    I’m open to correction on my figures as I’ve done them quickly.

  12. You are right to put these figures in context. When put in their proper context, they are frequently so trivial that it becomes extraordinary that there is any significant concern.
    The ‘greens’ automatic reaction that anything manmade in the oceans is bad. Sometimes that will be the case, but often it will not. They frequently protest about the sinking of oil rigs or wrecks, and yet the evidence is that these assist biodiversity, and provide useful habitat for many living organismsa nd life forms.
    Just a typical Guardian article which appeals to the non enequiring mind of the typical Guardian reader who lap up the fodder. It is their stapple diet.

    • Let’s not forget the Greenpeace ship ‘Rainbow Warrior’ that was bombed by the French DGSE Intelligence Service in Auckland Harbour in 1985. It was sunk with Greenpeace blessing and celebration in Northland, NZ for use as a diving site by tourists, no doubt many of whom are Greenpeacers and opposed to marine pollution!

  13. ddpalmer
    December 11, 2014 at 2:22 am
    Well jolly, the articles you cite about the “ice wall” are actually about the trenches, a completely different issue. The ice wall is technology that has been used before (although not specifically for radioactive contamination). Without it many tunnelling projects, like Boston’s “Big Dig”, would have been much more difficult.
    As for the USS Reagan, they got exposed to less radiation than the flight crew on a trans-Pacidic passenger plane. And citing enenews is a joke right?
    The issue is the failed effort to stop the flow of contaminated water. No ice wall has been established at Fukushima Daiichi.
    The sailors will get their day in court. At least, those that are still alive:
    http://www.stripes.com/news/judge-sailors-class-action-suit-can-proceed-over-alleged-radiation-exposure-1.311088
    enenews is an aggregator. The information comes from many sources.
    I don’t find any of this at all funny.

    • jolly farmer,
      Go troll somewhere else.
      The issue is plastic debris in the ocean. You have attempted to hijack the topic into a discussion of your declining to listen to facts about radiation.
      People have patiently pointed out the lack of danger. You decline to think. Sort of like the people who publish a photograph of life abundantly taking advantage of some plastic debris and then claiming that plastic is killing the life in the ocean.

    • [blockquote]The issue is the failed effort to stop the flow of contaminated water. No ice wall has been established at Fukushima Daiichi.[/blockquote]
      The issue is that your cited websites are NOT ABOUT THE ICE WALL.
      [blockquote]The sailors will get their day in court. At least, those that are still alive:[/blockquote]
      Never said they wouldn’t. But getting your day in court and winning are two totally different things. You see over the last 100+ years scientists have done a lot of research into radiation and have a pretty good handle on what levels are safe and on what illnesses it can cause. The Reagan was exposed to levels well below the point where illnesses occur and the illnesses reported are almost all known not to be caused by radiation.
      Add in the fact that the people of Fukushima prefecture, who were exposed to the same radiation at much higher levels and for a much longer time are not reporting such illnesses. They have an almost insurmountable hurdle to clear.
      Oh, I expect if it goes to a jury they might initially win on a sympathy vote, but on appeal they will lose.
      [blockquote]I don’t find any of this at all funny.[/blockquote]
      Well I am finding a lot of humor in your comments.
      They haven’t even started to TRY and establish the ice wall yet. they are still installing the pipes.

  14. Hi Willis,
    Whilst I’m certainly no fan of the Guardian, could you clarify your calculation of weight of plastic per volume of sea water. Are the volume figures for the whole extent of the Earth’s oceans. If so that supposes that the plastic is uniformly distributed at all depths. Is this the case or is a greater proportion found near the surface. Whichever way I agree there’s too much of it.

  15. I am fortunate to live in a beach front property. As is my wont I walk the beach most days to enjoy the scenery, for exercise and to keep the beach clean of discarded detritus arising from careless human activity. There is simply no excuse for humanity to treat the ocean as a garbage disposal unit – whether the density of this garbage is measured by area or by volume. Whenever I come across a cluster of plastic bags, soft drink bottles, tooth brushes or Coke bottle tops and so on, I ask myself what kind of mother raised the source litterers up? You don’t have to be a rabid ‘greenie’ to show respect for the environment, especially those areas that are community commons, such as are our oceans. Making excuses for plain bad behavior by claiming plastic can provide habitat for some marine organisms, is akin to justifying rubbish accumulating in a person’s back yard, because it provides a habitat for rats.

    • Bill,
      When I walk the beaches I typically pick up garbage as well. It is not really that big a deal and I see no reason to condemn those leave it. It is a minor annoyance at most.
      We really should reduce the waste we produce in general and especially stuff that ends up in the water/sea.
      However it is the actual toxins and other dangerous waste I am more concerned with. not the litter.

      • Hunter – Thanks for correcting my attempts to correct my English expression! However I reserve the right to condemn anyone who figuratively “craps” in “my” front yard. The number of comments I get from international tourists/backpackers querying what I’m picking up and placing in my bag as I stroll along the high tide zone is quite revealing. Generally they follow two themes – “my” patch of beach is as clean as any they have walked on and usually they also comment that they wish they could say the same for beaches in their own country. Now I’m no angel, but if you see willfully disposed beach detritus as a minor annoyance, then I would respectfully disagree with you. [But then I have been walking on the beaches in my neck of the woods for nigh on 70 years].

  16. It is correct to present the plastic concentration as only being in a limited section of the ocean – probably the top 30 ft or so. Because the paper explicitly only refers to that area – since it was the only area sampled.
    But I am much more interested in the points the paper makes.
    1 – it uses models which it claims are conservative. We have heard this before.
    2 – it’s major point is that plastic seems to be vanishing! They say that they estimate “233,400 tons of larger plastic items are afloat in the world’s oceans compared to 35,540 tons of microplastics.” This means that there is a fair amount of big stuff, but it doesn’t seem to degrade into little bits which spread around the surface waters. It goes somewhere else – eaten by bacteria or lodged in sediment, perhaps.
    This latter point is the main finding, and the one which really could do with more research. In the meantime, it looks as if the ecological concerns that we will be swamped in plastic are misplaced – the stuff does degrade, and then disappears…

    • Yes, that’s the advantage of carbon-based plastics. Seawater, oxygen, and the UV in sunlight will eventually degrade them to harmless end products.

    • Like this report
      Along a narrow road down an abandoned railroad grade about 20 miles northwest of Bemidji, a world-class outdoor laboratory lies among the pine trees.
      In part, it marks the spot where on Aug. 20, 1979, a Lakehead Company pipeline seam split, spewing about 440,000 gallons of crude oil. It was one of the largest pipeline spills in Minnesota.
      Today, the site is one of the most-studied crude oil spills in the world, and after three decades of research, it still produces important findings.
      Scientists here discovered that bacteria that break down oil are everywhere, ready to go to work. Even in the northern Minnesota woods there are microbes that eat carbon and break down oil. The population of those bugs explodes when there’s oil in the ground.
      “These microbes are there in very small quantities until ‘whoa, let’s have a party, we have food, we have carbon to eat,'” said Jared Trost, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who helps manage the site.

      http://www.mprnews.org/story/2014/06/03/bemidji-oil-spill-site-research
      What does every have against these carbon eating microbes?

  17. if 270 000 tons of plastics are a problem, what about the tens (or hundreds ?) of millions of tons of shipwrecks, with all the shit they contained ?

    • You beat me to it, paqyfelyc.
      And the shipwrecks don’t seem to degrade as much as the plastic. We still find the odd bronze age or older ship lying about on the seafloor.

  18. I remember reading about the potential of building a fleet of trawlers specifically designed to harvest the plastic from the Pacific vortex. This would be a good job for Greenpeace. Rather than standing on their boats with signs they could put all the endowment money they receive into actually DOING something tangible.

    • Set up floating power plants and floating factories. Burn the stuff and use the energy for productive work. Container ships can dock at a floating terminal and then convey the product world wide.

  19. For perspective … the US EPA estimates that “In 2012, Americans generated about 251 million tons of trash … ”
    http://www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/municipal/pubs/2012_msw_fs.pdf
    Are the oceans half empty or half full? If we assume that plastic doesn’t degrade and is therefore “for ever,” then the headline 279,000,000 kilograms of plastic is the total of all plastic released into the oceans since plastic was invented. I’d say that the oceans are much less than half full.
    One of the miracles of living in a prosperous country is that every week I fill a large plastic container with stuff I don’t want any more and our municipal waste system takes it away and disposes of it. Safely. Scientifically. To the health and betterment of the citizenry.

  20. My first question would be On what basic assumptions has that 270 million kilograms estimate of plastic in the ocean been based?
    What verified and researched data source is that estimate based?
    Or is it just another of those wild assed enviro green blob guesses doubled to make it look really bad, plastic is after all another nefarious fossil fuel based invention of the human species, plus an additional 80% allowance included to cover any possibility of someone suggesting that the plastic problem is of very minor consequence in the total scheme of ocean area and volume.
    And it seems it might be just that as ocean life in all it’s immense diversity gets a taste for those hydro carbon based plastics.
    We always without fail, badly underestimate the ability of life and Nature to adapt to just about any circumstance and to adapt to and use whatever is available to support life in all it’s uncountable myriad forms.
    [ global warning catastrophists please note the above comment ]
    The plastic / bio-organisms / sea life interaction has already been the subject of a couple of quite recent studies, one from the University of Western Australia and another from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute;
    Quoted from the MIT / WHOI study abstract;
    http://cen.acs.org/articles/91/web/2013/06/Ocean-Plastics-Host-Surprising-Microbial.html
    “Ocean Plastics Host Surprising Microbial Array”
    Abstract selections;
    But much still remains unknown about the ecological impacts of these materials. So a group of Massachusetts researchers, led by Linda A. Amaral-Zettler at the Marine Biological Laboratory and Tracy J. Mincer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, decided to study the microbial communities found on plastics to explore how the organisms affect marine environments.
    The team analyzed plastic samples they collected during two research cruises to the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre, a stretch of ocean roughly midway between the eastern coast of North America and Africa. They used a scanning electron microscope, among other techniques, to study the bacteria living on the particles. “What we found really blew us across the room,” says Mincer, a microbial ecologist:
    They couldn’t say for sure, but the bacteria appeared to burrow pits into the plastic, which had never been observed before. The team didn’t expect such behavior, because they thought nutrient levels in that region wouldn’t support bacteria digesting hydrocarbons in this way.
    The group suspects this may at least partially explain a surprising aspect of plastic waste found in previous studies in this region of the Atlantic. Even though the amount of plastic waste entering the ocean is probably increasing, researchers at Sea Education Association, a nonprofit group that studies the ocean environment, have not found an increase in plastics in the sea (Science 2010, DOI: 10.1126/science.1192321).
    Mincer says one possible explanation is that bacteria eat into the polymers, weakening the pieces enough to cause them to break down more quickly and eventually sink to the sea floor. Supporting this hypothesis, some of the plastic-burrowing bacteria are closely related to species known to consume other types of hydrocarbons, such as oil.
    Because of the possible risks the debris poses to marine life, microbes breaking down plastic pollution would be a promising discovery, says Michael Cunliffe, a marine microbiologist at the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. “But it needs to be shown in a bit more detail.”
    Besides the bacterial pits, the team also found evidence that the microbial communities on plastics were distinct from those found in surrounding waters. A single sample a few centimeters across could contain hundreds of microbial species. “It’s really like a microbial reef,” Mincer says.
    [ cont; ]
    ____________________
    From the Uni of Western Australia
    http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0100289
    “Millimeter-Sized Marine Plastics: A New Pelagic Habitat for Microorganisms and Invertebrates”
    Selected Abstract quotes
    Millimeter-sized plastics are abundant in most marine surface waters, and known to carry fouling organisms that potentially play key roles in the fate and ecological impacts of plastic pollution. In this study we used scanning electron microscopy to characterize biodiversity of organisms on the surface of 68 small floating plastics (length range = 1.7–24.3 mm, median = 3.2 mm) from Australia-wide coastal and oceanic, tropical to temperate sample collections. Diatoms were the most diverse group of plastic colonizers, represented by 14 genera. We also recorded ‘epiplastic’ coccolithophores (7 genera), bryozoans, barnacles (Lepas spp.), a dinoflagellate (Ceratium), an isopod (Asellota), a marine worm, marine insect eggs (Halobates sp.), as well as rounded, elongated, and spiral cells putatively identified as bacteria, cyanobacteria, and fungi. Furthermore, we observed a variety of plastic surface microtextures, including pits and grooves conforming to the shape of microorganisms, suggesting that biota may play an important role in plastic degradation. This study highlights how anthropogenic millimeter-sized polymers have created a new pelagic habitat for microorganisms and invertebrates. The ecological ramifications of this phenomenon for marine organism dispersal, ocean productivity, and biotransfer of plastic-associated pollutants, remains to be elucidated.
    _____________

    • And the abstract from the Sea Education Association’s 22 year long, from 1986 to 2008, research project on plastic accumulation referred to in the MIT paper above;
      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20724586
      “Plastic accumulation in the North Atlantic subtropical gyre”.
      Abstract
      Plastic marine pollution is a major environmental concern, yet a quantitative description of the scope of this problem in the open ocean is lacking. Here, we present a time series of plastic content at the surface of the western North Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea from 1986 to 2008. More than 60% of 6136 surface plankton net tows collected buoyant plastic pieces, typically millimeters in size. The highest concentration of plastic debris was observed in subtropical latitudes and associated with the observed large-scale convergence in surface currents predicted by Ekman dynamics.
      Despite a rapid increase in plastic production and disposal during this time period, no trend in plastic concentration was observed in the region of highest accumulation.

    • Is the figure one half billion pounds correct?
      My experience tells me it is multiples of the actual amount.
      I consider myself an environmentalist as I was as a youth. But I have since learned the mathematics of environmentalism:
      Environmental hyper-alarmism—->
      Environmental scam—->$ in the pockets of the scammers and sharpies
      As in the case of global warming, sometimes that $ is my tax dollar.

  21. “…270,000,000 kilograms of plastic works out to 200 grams of plastic per cubic kilometer of the ocean.”
    That would be correct if the plastic were uniformly distributed. But most of it likely floating on the surface or sunk to the bottom. And the floating stuff mostly likely collects in clumps in much smaller regions, determined by ocean winds and currents. So I’m guessing there is generally a famine of plastic throughout the oceans, with regional areas where it collects in abundance.

  22. Their Guardian reporting/opinion on certain issues such as climate/eco concerns, dietary concerns, race and feminism are all over the top. Inflammatory hyperbole on it’s best day. To take them literally is to conclude old white men in general and conservative white young men are pillaging the environment, creating extreme weather for generations to come, killing blacks and raping women. If the National Enquirer covered the same issues they become the Guardian. I really don’t know whats become of left wing media in the last decade, maybe it’s the Rush Limbaugh affect, leftward media in striving to emulate his financial success have devolved on the journalistic evolutionary scale.

  23. A fine illustration of the importance of context, and superbly attention-grabbing by taking a big number and asking ‘is this a big number?’ Entertaining and edifying.

  24. When presented with statistics in a discussion I always ask, “What if I told you I could double your chances of winning the lottery immediately?” They become quiet at that thought, and I tell them to buy 2 lottery tickets instead of 1. Somehow having a 2 in a 5 million chance of winning over a 1 in a 5 million chance does not match the promise of doubling your chances.
    The issue is context. The same game is played with cigarette smoking, as in the lottery example, the likely hood of getting lung cancer is without question increased with smoking, but I believe people need to know what those risks are in context. Why isn’t it communicated simply: smokers chance of lung cancer is x in 100,000 while a non-smoker is x per 100,000. What about explaining the vast majority of lung cancer deaths occur after age 70 where there are a whole host of other afflictions that kill people after that age?
    I myself am pretty tired of being in an age where fear mongering is the primary method of institutions communicating to the public. Doesn’t sound like an enlightened age, more like medieval.

    • “…could double your chances of winning the lottery…”
      But, since lottery numbers are randomly generated, if you bought all of the tickets printed you still wouldn’t be guaranteed of winning. And, because the Government always takes a free slice or two, even if you did win, the payoff would be less than total ticket cost.
      So buying two tickets just increases your chance of losing. Slightly. 🙂

    • The smoking data is readily available, in male, current, 60-64yo smokers the mortality rate per 100,000 person years is ~400, whereas for ‘never smokers’ of the same age it’s ~9.

    • Lung cancer is just one of many potential health penalties associated with smoking.
      From the CDC:

      Smoking:1,2
      Harms nearly every organ of the body
      Causes many diseases and reduces the health of smokers in general

      http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/health_effects/effects_cig_smoking/index.htm
      And….

      The immune system is the body’s way of protecting itself from infection and disease. Smoking compromises the immune system, making smokers more likely to have respiratory infections.
      Smoking also causes several autoimmune diseases, including Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis. It may also play a role in periodic flare-ups of signs and symptoms of autoimmune diseases. Smoking doubles your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.
      Smoking has recently been linked to type 2 diabetes, also known as adult-onset diabetes. Smokers are 30% to 40% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than nonsmokers. Additionally, the more cigarettes an individual smokes, the higher the risk for diabetes.
      […]
      Recent studies show a direct relationship between tobacco use and decreased bone density
      […]
      The chemicals in tobacco smoke harm your blood cells and damage the function of your heart. This damage increases your risk for:
      Atherosclerosis, a disease in which a waxy substance called plaque builds up in your arteries
      Aneurysms, which are bulging blood vessels that can burst and cause death
      Cardiovascular disease (CVD), which includes:
      Coronary heart disease (CHD), narrow or blocked arteries around the heart
      Heart attack and damage to your arteries
      Heart-related chest pain
      High blood pressure
      Coronary Heart disease, where platelets—components in the blood—stick together along with proteins for form clots which can then get stuck in the plaque in the walls of arteries and cause heart attacks
      Peripheral arterial disease (PAD), a condition in which plaque builds up in the arteries that carry blood to the head, organs, and limbs
      Stroke, which is sudden death of brain cells caused by blood clots or bleeding
      Breathing tobacco smoke can even change your blood chemistry and damage your blood vessels. As you inhale smoke, cells that line your body’s blood vessels react to its chemicals. Your heart rate and blood pressure go up and your blood vessels thicken and narrow.
      […]

      More here:
      http://betobaccofree.hhs.gov/health-effects/smoking-health/

  25. Good article. It really demonstrates “Puny Human Syndrome” (I just made that up) where we vastly over estimate our size and impact in the universe, even though we are so insignificant that a billion of us is hardly noticable.

  26. Willis, like global warming alarm, this is just another among hundreds of scary topics (the thread digressed into radioactivity, another topic with more than 200gs of ink/km^3 of sea water spent on it).. We are awash in this nonsense and I believe the greens and newspaper supporters are counterproductive to their cause in turning so much of this stuff out.
    One of the main things that all this hype has polluted is the internet. Type in the word asbestos. If you are hoping to find a lot of articles on the mineralogy and mining of it, you are out of luck. It was another over-hyped topic some 40 years ago and it hasn’t abated much with time. It was taken out of asbetos-cement pipe for conducting potable water, even though there was more abestos and abestos-form mineral concentration in natural river waters in the Canadian north where it was derived from the metamorphosed rock formations of the Canadian Shield. I drank lots of it over many decades. Here is an EPA report on filteriing asbestiform particles out of Lake Superior water (I hate these long links).
    http://nepis.epa.gov/Exe/ZyNET.exe/2000FXPU.TXT?ZyActionD=ZyDocument&Client=EPA&Index=Prior+to+1976&Docs=&Query=&Time=&EndTime=&SearchMethod=1&TocRestrict=n&Toc=&TocEntry=&QField=&QFieldYear=&QFieldMonth=&QFieldDay=&IntQFieldOp=0&ExtQFieldOp=0&XmlQuery=&File=D%3A\zyfiles\Index%20Data\70thru75\Txt0000001\2000FXPU.txt&User=ANONYMOUS&Password=anonymous&SortMethod=h|-&MaximumDocuments=1&FuzzyDegree=0&ImageQuality=r75g8/r75g8/x150y150g16/i425&Display=p|f&DefSeekPage=x&SearchBack=ZyActionL&Back=ZyActionS&BackDesc=Results%20page&MaximumPages=1&ZyEntry=1&SeekPage=x&ZyPURL

    • Asbestos was another environmental scam. The only danger that the mineral posed was as an aerosol in pulverized form. But then it was deadly.

      • My Father did a fair bit of work on this in the 70’s. Asbestos in general is only as bad as coal dust, silica dust, wheat dust, sawdust etc. for health concerns. UNLESS. If it is a hollow fibre asbestos. If the fibre is hollow it allows a lot of biological things to happen protected from the immune system. Cancers are one of the possible results. Asbestos comes in many different types and chemical formulations. The good have been cursed by the bad due to the same name.

  27. Seen some documentaries where, like your pic shows, fish (especially tiny fry) use anything, including floating plastic, as protection where usually there is none. So like most issues there are several aspects, good and bad.

  28. “270,000,000 kilograms of plastic”
    Yup. It is all about perspective. Willis puts the number up against the ocean and the alarm bells ring more softly. The Guardian wants alarm bells clanging in your head by getting you to visualize 270,000,000 kilograms of plastic as if you were taking it out to your curbside recycling bin.
    Numbers and perspective; one flea in a sleeping bag is one flea too many.

  29. As someone posted above, it would be nice if some of the $ wasted on fictitious CAGW could be directed to cleaning up the mess.
    Some species like the laysan albatross use natural plastics as part of their diet and isn’t necessarily harmful, although it would be so much better if the US and other nations didn’t use our oceans as a dumping ground.
    This article is in Living Bird magazine by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and their blog.
    http://blog.allaboutbirds.org/2014/09/26/facing-into-the-wind-the-complicated-fate-of-the-laysan-albatross/
    “They don’t eat plastics by mistake,” Flint said, “They seek them out and swallow them on purpose because they’re a substrate for flying fish eggs. If you walked around an albatross colony in the 1950s, you would find albatross carcasses full of pumice and sticks and wood.
    “They’ve been eating natural plastics all their life,” she said, referring to the hard, sharp beaks of squid that are the albatrosses’ main food. Flint stressed that plastics do pose problems: they harm species lower on the food chain. They also accumulate toxins from the water and can pose a chemical threat when swallowed. But they do not necessarily cause albatross chicks to starve. Before fledging, most albatross chicks cough up plastic and squid beaks alike to clear their stomach before taking their first flight. Kaloakulua successfully regurgitated her “bolus” of stomach contents on June 1, 2014. The following video shows a Kauai Albatross Network volunteer examining the plastic that it contained:

  30. Willis:
    Part of the issue with all the plastic pollution in the oceans is the fact that it is washing up on the shores of Pacific islands like Midway Atoll in the northwest Hawaiian islands chain. Midway was closed down as a U.S. naval base some years ago and is now a federal wildlife refuge.
    The problem according to reports and the images below is that the bird life on these islands mistake the small plastic pieces for food and consume them. Their digestive systems cannot handle the digestion of the plastic and it ends up killing them.
    http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=plastic+on+midway+island&qpvt=plastic+on+midway+island&qpvt=plastic+on+midway+island
    I am making no claim here regarding the legitimacy of these reports or the seriousness of the problem, and many of the images above do appear to show plastic pieces having been placed on the bird carcass before the photos were taken. As a animal lover however it is disturbing to see those photos of dead birds, and keeping the shores of Midway and the rest of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands (which are all wildlife refuges) free of the plastic is a never-ending chore. According to reports, much if not most of the plastic is actually coming from Japan rather than the U.S.
    Just wanted to make everyone aware.

    • Good points. An aside: Many birds seek out strange stuff to consume as part of their natural process of digestion and ridding their guts of indigestible bits like bones, squid beaks, etc. Owls and other raptors routinely cough up ‘pellets’ and many birds consume grit, pebbles and even stones to help the digestion process. Yes, have to be careful regarding some photos, especially from sites that have an agenda or axe to grind.

    • ….if the federal government took just a fraction of the money it squanders on the fictitious CAGW “problem” and the money it wastes on the wind and solar energy industries, the money could fund a program to control this problem–at least in U.S. waters including around the Hawaiian islands.
      Unfortunately, with Washington politicians having their heads up their butts, I don’t see this happening anytime soon.

  31. I heard an interesting radio interview several months ago, and apparently there is an issue with the presence of microplastics collecting on the ocean floor – the reason being that they are ingested by both small and large marine organisms, and have been shown to concentrate toxic chemicals that are already present in sea water. These microplastics get there in a variety of ways – microbeads in cosmetics, plastic bags that fragment instead of degrading, even washing our polyester-containing clothes (microscopic lint is shed from the clothing into the waste water and eventually ends up in the ocean). Tiny organisms ingest these bits of plastic, bigger organisms eat them – and so on. Currently, the cumulative effects are not known, although they are being studied.

    • M Manhas
      I heard an interesting radio interview several months ago, and apparently there is an issue with the presence of microplastics collecting on the ocean floor – the reason being that they are ingested by both small and large marine organisms, and have been shown to concentrate toxic chemicals that are already present in sea water.

      Pure conjecture and exaggerated hype from the eco-greenery culture – that wants more money, and feeds internally off of fear and projections. For example, these critters are supposedly getting harmed by sub-microscopic “dirt” – that is “articificial dirt” and grit really – when they LIVE ON the muck, sand, grit, and soil erosion and billions of tons of organic residue drifting down over the waters from above? The “muck” dropped down to the bottom by the time the ocean floor reaches the continental shelves is thousands and thousands of meters deep. And that is where these bottom-feeders live!
      But “artificial plastics” are supposedly building up and harming them? What? They have never heard of pearls before? Of sperm whales’ coating squid beaks? Of fish swallowing fish whole – then “fish poop” falling below?

  32. I can live with the odd bit of plastic. My main rule is to avoid any stretches of river or ocean downstream of where Professor Garnaut, former Climate Change advisor for the Australian Government, has been engaged in gold mining.

  33. Seems like this is a good case of “the danger is in the dose”.
    BTW, maybe some of these billionaires who are spending so much money trying to buy elections for the green side could afford an expedition to clean up some of this stuff. Really, a ship, a vacuum…how expensive can it be? Put Leo d Caprio on the boat (add some “models” if you want to make a show of it for TMZ) and voila!

  34. @ M Manhas
    “… apparently there is an issue with the presence of microplastics collecting on the ocean floor – the reason being that they are ingested by both small and large marine organisms, and have been shown to concentrate toxic chemicals that are already present in sea water. …”
    Ah! So another way of putting it is that the microplastics are CLEANING the sea water and burying the toxins safely under the sea bed…?
    How very environmental…

  35. We can argue about how important it is till the cows come home but the simple fact is that nowhere on this earth is there a truly pristine beach. And it is one thing to show a pic of plastic in an Albatross carcass. It is another to watch those birds die a horrible death. “Goony birds” is what the sailors on Midway during WW II called them. The birds were unafraid of man even when that atoll was covered with people and aircraft. A person could walk up to one and help launch it into the wind. Now Midway is a trash heap. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pUM58LIU2Lo
    On Betio Island of the Tarawa atoll fragments of bones of marines that fought and were blown to pieces there in that concentrated hell are found among the piles of trash and plastic on the beaches to this day. Portions of the beaches where so many died taking the most concentrated defense the fanatical Japanese would mount during the whole war are nothing more than trash heaps. http://www.raidersmerciless.com/showthread.php?t=8812
    I could go on with other examples but I think you now get where I stand on this issue.

    • There is a, possibly apocryphal, story i once heard from a western climbing expedition on the trek to K2 base-camp: At one of the intermediate campsites approaching the Baltoro glacier the expedition decided that there was too much refuse left by other expeditions. They gave their many porters some sacks and ordered them to go and pick up all the trash. The porters came back with sacks full of twigs and leaves.
      I might have felt the same way, but ugliness is in the eye of the beholder.

  36. Thank you, Willis. Your perspective is always helpful. Despite that analysis, I still worry about two aspects of the ocean-borne plastic problem.
    The first is microparticles. Much of the plastic in the ocean is not the big, still-identifiable styrofoam cups and water bottles – it is plastic that has been ground down to the size of dust. Permit a short analogy – there is a great deal of dirt on the land. I don’t worry about any of it, however, because only the small fraction that’s of the right size to stay airborne will affect my asthma. That fraction, however, affects me very much. And it doesn’t take very much per km3 of atmosphere to keep me indoors.
    My second remaining concern is the unstated assumption that the plastic is and remains biologically inert. If, as some research as suggested, plastic can decompose into hormone-like compounds, it again could have effect disproportionate to its apparent quantity. (My hypothesis, by the way, would be that such breakdown components would disperse more easily than the original solid plastic artifacts and that therefore any hormonal effects could be felt even in areas with no apparent solid pollution.)

  37. However, as an ocean problem, it’s way, way below things like overfishing and pollution.

    And what type of emissions should count as pollution?
    It cannot be sewage, that is after all just plant food, like CO2. The main ingredients in sewage are Nitrogen and Phosphorous which is also the main ingredients in fertilizers. Acid rain contains SO2, i.e. Sulfur which is another ingredient in fertilizer.
    Is it only heavy metals that counts as pollutants? Most of the heavy metal pollution comes from burning of coal by the way.
    /Jan

    • Jan, always a bit sketchy to generalize to something as large and biodiverse as the oceans. One example. Sewage ( and more generally organic runoff) is a major ‘pollutant’ of coastal coral reefs. As the prganic matter decomposes, it gives off trace hydrogen sulfide (swamp gas) whichnis an acute toxin to marine organisms in the same way and formthemsame reasons that cyanide is for humans. The LD50 of H2S for corals, crabs, and such is about 30 PPB!
      Acid rain is a problem for fresh water lakes in metamorphic or igneous geologies where there is no carbonate for neutralization, like New England. Ocean dissolved carbonate neutralizes it, so not a big ocean concern. And so on.
      Cost/benefit analyses need to be reasonably granular to be meaningful.

  38. Three observations. First, Willis’ post is a good example of the need for information perspective, a topic explored in that chapter of The Arts of Truth. Much of the current media commentary about ‘shale oil’ and the Saudi ‘price war’ on it suffers from lack of perspective (as well as lack of Petroleum 101 geophysics).
    Second, the plastics estimate. Never trust media (especially like Grauniad). The article reports on a new paper in PLOS/1. No paywall, good SI. Really interesting. Result of 14 separate expeditions to all major ocean areas, 680 towed fine mesh (0.3mm) net transects (to depth of 2 meters) and 891 large object visual transect counts by 9 plastic object types. Net samples actually sorted and measured for volume and weight by particle size class. Large visual object samples measures for volume and weight by type class. Massive experimental results fed into US Navy’s world ocean model surface layer for currents and winds to generalize the sampled transects to the globe, producing the generalized 269,000 metric tons estimate. Solid science IMO. Glad Willis brought it to our attention. And showing Willis’ gedanken used a wrong assumption. It should be square km of surface to a depth of two meters, NOT cubic km.
    Third, ROM’s comment above identified two very interesting papers on how bacteria and other microorganisms colonize (and at least in some cases consume) the smaller plastic bits. Why is that important? Because it completely explains biologically the biggest surprise finding of the PLOS/1 paper. Actual samples matched the generalized Navy ocean model result really well (statisticly, for all oceans and gyres) for all visual types and all particle sizes (light and wave turbulence plastic degradation) except for the smallest particle class. There, the model produced an order of magnitude more plastic than observed. As the plastic bits get smaller, they get biologically recycled, something the ‘physical’ ocean model did not incorporate.
    That good news is something the Grauniad probably would not report, since it means ocean plastic–while not good–is much less alarming than Grauniad implied, for reasons independent of Willis’ quantitative perspective.

  39. Then there is this:
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2210474/Forgotten-hazards-Unexploded-WW2-bombs-chemical-weapons-pose-threat-oil-drilling-Gulf-Mexico.html
    Millions of pounds of unexploded bombs dumped in the Gulf of Mexico by the U.S. government after World War Two pose a significant risk to offshore oil drilling, warn researchers.
    It is no secret that the United States, along with other governments, dumped munitions and chemical weapons in oceans from 1946 until the practice was banned in the 1970s by U.S. law and international treaty, said William Bryant, a Texas A&M University professor of oceanography.
    Last year, BP shut its key Forties crude pipeline in the North Sea for five days while it removed a 13-foot (4-metre) unexploded German mine found resting cozily next to the pipeline that transports up to 40 percent of the UK’s oil production.
    Hundreds of dolphins washed ashore in Virginia and New Jersey shorelines in 1987 with burns similar to mustard gas exposure. One marine-mammal specialist suspects Army-dumped chemical weapons killed them.
    “The Army now admits that it secretly dumped 64 million pounds of nerve and mustard agents into the sea, along with 400,000 chemical-filled bombs, land mines and rockets and more than 500 tons of radioactive waste – either tossed overboard or packed into the holds of scuttled vessels.”
    http://scienceblogs.com/deepseanews/2007/06/11/munitions-dumping-at-sea/
    Most of the present day ocean trash dumping (much like any other dumping including chemical) is probably done illegally by those just saving a buck, and not particularly caring about any consequences (10 percenter’s).

  40. Need I re-quote George Carlin from the 5 December post here on WUWT?
    “And if it’s true that plastic is not degradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: the earth plus plastic. The earth doesn’t share our prejudice toward plastic. Plastic came out of the earth. The earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place. It wanted plastic for itself. Didn’t know how to make it. Needed us. Could be the answer to our age-old egocentric philosophical question, “Why are we here?” “Plastic… asshole.” -George Carlin

  41. The consequences of pollution are inevitably measured in context and in proportion to concentration. Even the much maligned oil is a nutrient that feeds the base of some ecosystems.

  42. I used a different approach, but obviously came to a similar result. I think using cubic km is a bit over the top. the stuff is ‘floating’ after all. I used cubic meters multiplied by surface area in meters to get the weight of the top meter of ocean.
    My proposal: take the IPCC funding and have the UN fund the clean up. These are international waters after all and something the UNITED NATIONS should be responsible for.
    http://strata-sphere.com/blog/index.php/archives/20597

    • 269,000 tonnes has all the traditional accuracy of The Guardian’s reporting. All other so-called “sources” should be banned. The numbers are settled.

  43. Thanks, Willis, for the “balanced” part that has been completely abandoned by print and broadcast journalism.

    • > Physicist: There was no Fukushima nuclear disaster
      That’s true enough. But there is a complex and expensive clean up problem and a displaced population issue that is due to the failure of the facilities at the plant. What bothers me is that it was probably avoidable. When the Fukushima-daiichi plant was designed, it was thought (incorrectly) that the largest likely earthquake would be about that of the great Kanto earthquake of 1923 that pretty much flattened the Tokyo-Yokohama area — magnitude 7.9. That’s what Fukushima was designed for and AFAICS, it’d probably have handled a magnitude 8.0 quake and the associated tsunami without problem.
      But by 1985 at the latest, it had become clear that substantially stronger quakes were possible at the plate boundaries off the coast of Honshu. The Fukushima facility was never upgraded to reflect that knowledge. Would an upgrade have prevented all damage to the plant? I have no idea. But I think it would have probably helped a lot.

      • The displaced population is mostly because of rabid radiophobia, most of the evacuated areas did not need to be evacuated.
        The earthquake did little damage to the facility, it was the tsunami combined with poor placement of back-up generators and electrical lines that lead to the meltdowns.

      • ddpalmer
        ddpalmer December 12, 2014 at 2:57 am

        The earthquake did little damage to the facility

        Dunno ’bout that.
        There are reports that unit 1 was smoking already before the tsunami hit, and radiation alarms were going off, according to documents supplied by TEPCO.

        TOKYO: A radiation alarm went off at the Fukushima nuclear power plant before the tsunami hit on March 11, suggesting that contrary to earlier assumptions the reactors were damaged by the earthquake that spawned the wall of water.
        A monitoring post on the perimeter of the plant went off at 3.29pm, minutes before the station was overwhelmed by water, knocking out the back-up power that kept cooling systems running, according to documents supplied by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco).

        http://www.smh.com.au/environment/earthquake-may-have-damaged-reactor-before-tsunami-20110519-1ev1m.html#ixzz2OalwauKf
        More here includes worker reports of buckling, bursting pipes prior to tsunami:

        A second worker, a technician in his late 30s, who was also on site at the time of the earthquake, narrated what happened. “It felt like the earthquake hit in two waves, the first impact was so intense you could see the building shaking, the pipes buckling, and within minutes, I saw pipes bursting. Some fell off the wall. Others snapped.

        http://www.fukuleaks.org/web/?page_id=10166

  44. “Does it look like a) that chunk of plastic is inimical to sea life … or does it look like b) that chunk of plastic is acting a substrate upon which abundant sea life is living and serving as fish food? Call me crazy but I’m going for Choice b), you can see the little striped fish chowing down. Now I know that not all plastic is good for sea life … but that plastic certainly is.”
    “Now, I’m willing to agree that there are some kinds of plastic that are likely inimical to sealife. Nylon fishing nets that have been lost and gone adrift, for example, continue to kill fish.”
    Go to the Guardian story and you can get a higher res version of the picture. That chunk of plastic that is “is acting a substrate upon which abundant sea life is living and serving as fish food” very much appears to be a fragment of nylon fishing net, so your comment that “Nylon fishing nets that have been lost and gone adrift, for example, continue to kill fish.” is clearly not universally true.

  45. Plastic in the ocean is as distressing as any trash you see laying about. For poor societies the oceans are a cost effective method of disposal. Only wealthy societies can afford recycling and proper disposal of waste. If the greens have their way, hindering prosperity in the poorer parts of the world, we’ll never see cleaner oceans.

  46. Fly over the ocean East of NYC sometimes and see the many garbage ships dumping in the Atlantic for a real eye opener. Real recycling going on there.

  47. So, some patches of flotsam have been found in the Horse Latitudes, exactly where you would expect such patches. So, based on such encounters, someone concluded that the Horse Latitudes have some ungodly amount of flotsam, essentially an extrapolation. I seriously doubt anyone has mapped this explicitly and done an all inclusive survey. No one really knows how much flotsam is really out there and even “pure research” orgs need to allocate their vessels and satellites for higher priority tasks.

  48. Just for the heck of it.
    Its probably in the Granuid but I haven’t seen it reported anywhere as yet until this morning’s ” Australian” [ Fri 12th Dec. ]
    The “Guardian’s” Alan Rushburger News and Media Editor for the last 20 years will step down to become the Guardian’s funder, “The Scott Trust ” Chairman.
    Globally The Guardian posted a loss of 30.6 million pounds for the year ending March 30th. [AUD $57.8 million ]
    Guardian Australia posted a loss of $7.5 million loss on sales revenues of $3.79 million;
    Editors in chief aren’t exactly renown for their reticence in making a personal impact when and where at all possible.
    A new editor invariably likes to shift a lot of things around in any news sheet he / she might get the chance to edit.
    So we can expect some changes in the Guardians news reporting whether for good or bad or for better or for worse, we will just have to wait and see.
    Not that it can get much worse from the Guardian’s present execrable exaggeration of anything that looks like it might arouse a further elevating of emotional environmentalism regardless of the actual facts of the case.

  49. Every two years a research vessel does transects of the Pacific Gyre. First, there is no floating island the size of Rhode Island in the center. There is no island of any size; there simple is no aggregation at all. Second, the most recent such research trip had to trawl for longer than usual to gather enough pieces of plastic to be able to do a statistical treatment. Third, they report that the amount of plastic has been creasing exponentially for decades, dwindling away as countries and ships learn how not to lose their trash in the sea. Fourth, there is an real island in the Pacific gyre that indeed does have plastic on its shores. The plastic is largely little tiny pieces, similar to sand, which means that the plastic is being churned and ground into tiny pieces that degrade that much faster. It is indeed going away.
    Years ago, with the invention of formica counter tops, the prediction was that someday we would be drowning in formica waste, as it would not break down. Only two decades later there were at least two strains of fungus that had learned to eat formica. Nature truly does not like to waste a perfectly good food source.
    Plastics at sea perform two major functions besides serving as useful habitats for marine life. They can serve as a food source as bacteria and fungi break them down, and some kinds of plastic absorb toxins from the water and are broken down over time by solar light and UV radiation.
    I seriously believe that the stated amount of plastic in the paper is a gross over-estimate, as the worst pollution is concentrated near the shorelines of undeveloped countries. I am also sure that the estimate required some rampant extrapolation, which would be perfectly in keeping with such alarmist material. It is unlikely to be an under-estimate; what would be the alarm in that?
    [“decreasing exponentially” not “creasing exponentially”? .mod]

  50. “because it turns out that the 270,000,000 kilograms of plastic works out to 200 grams of plastic per cubic kilometer of the ocean. Or in old-school measurements, that’s just under two pounds of plastic per cubic mile of seawater.”
    I assume that most of the plastic is less dense than water since an annoying amount seems to end up littering beaches, and really dense material is surely going to end up on the bottom. So I think probably we should be talking in terms of plastic per unit area, not volume. That would be 270,000 metric tonnes distributed over 361 million square kilometers of ocean surface or about 748 grams per square kilometer. Or about 1.65lb per square kilometer. Is that annoying? It annoys me and probably most readers. Is it a matter for real concern? Probably not. Are we all going to die because of it? I doubt it.

  51. I say we just go full-on archaic and double up on all the consonants: kkilloggrrammss, ttonness, yess my preciousssss, we likesss itttt.

    • I assume you are referring to the nn in tonnes. It’s the conventional way to distinguish between English tons (2000 lb) and metric tonnes (1000kg = 2205lb).

      • Those are American tons or short tons, English tons (Imperial measure) are 2240lbs, their use in the US is limited to the displacement of ships.

  52. I recall a conversation with a Green friend who waxed animated about “Garbage Island” in the Pacific. I asked him why we never see a photograph of Garbage Island, and ventured the opinion that it was probably not actually an island in the sense of being something you could stand on, or even see. He told me I was quite wrong. I suggested we google to settle the matter. After we did so, he was gracious enough to admit I was right.

  53. If it was not for the CO2 religion this would not be an issue. A small firm near here produces a plasma furnace that burns the stuff producing no toxins. I looked at their data and found that a ship could harvest the stuff totally self powered from what it collects and have 80% left over for base station combustion based on the density quoted at the collection areas divided by ten for greenwashing of the image of industry and exaggeration of fossil fuel problems.

  54. Large holes in your logic. First, small ingestible plastic is the biggest issue. I would give a three year old a plastic bottle but only with out the cap. Only talking about large pieces is somewhat of a straw man argument.
    Second, how many cubic meters of sea water goes through a fish’s gills in its lifetime? This narrows the numbers. Not necessarily the conclusion.

    • ironargonaut December 12, 2014 at 3:45 pm

      Large holes in your logic. First, small ingestible plastic is the biggest issue. I would give a three year old a plastic bottle but only with out the cap. Only talking about large pieces is somewhat of a straw man argument.

      Sorry, I’m in mystery here—what makes you think I’m only talking about the large pieces?

      Second, how many cubic meters of sea water goes through a fish’s gills in its lifetime? This narrows the numbers. Not necessarily the conclusion.

      Not sure why that number is relevant.
      iron, if you have evidence that the “small ingestible plastic” is a problem in the ocean, then please cite it. As a lifelong sailor, surfer, commercial and sport fisherman, and commercial and sport diver, I’m always willing to learn more about the ocean.
      All the best to you,
      w.

      • Because you refer to plastic that is large enough for organisms to attach to. Are you suggesting it is not a problem for marine animals to ingest nonbiodegrable objects?
        “plastic soda rings, “baggies,” styrofoam particles and plastic pellets are often mistaken by sea turtles as authentic food. Clogging their intestines, and missing out on vital nutrients, the turtles starve to death. Seabirds undergo a similar ordeal, mistaking the pellets for fish eggs, small crab and other prey, sometimes even feeding the pellets to their young. Despite the fact that only 0.05% of plastic pieces from surface waters are pellets, they comprise about 70% of the plastic eaten by seabirds. These small plastic particles have been found in the stomachs of 63 of the world’s approximately 250 species of seabirds”
        http://www.whoi.edu/science/B/people/kamaral/plasticsarticle.html
        Five minutes on google to validate what my logic.

      • Iron, while your claim involves the claimed dangers of the ingestion of plastic, the main thrust of the popular report that you cited involves uncited claims about entanglement, viz:

        And apparently, the ocean isn’t large enough to avoid marine life encounters with debris. Plastic’s devastating effect on marine mammals was first observed in the late 1970s, when scientists from the National Marine Mammal Laboratory concluded that plastic entanglement was killing up to 40,000 seals a year. Annually, this amounted to a four to six percent drop in seal population beginning in 1976. In 30 years, a 50% decline in Northern Fur Seals has been reported.

        I could find nothing from the NMML giving a number of 40,000 seals killed per year, and I didn’t believe a word of it the moment I read it, in part because the kind of seals is not stated, and in part because the number is just too high. I did find this study, which says:

        The rate of entanglement was estimated for both adult and juvenile male fur seals as the ratio of all entanglement sightings (initial and subsequent sightings for juveniles) to the total number of animals observed in each age class. The rate of entanglement for juvenile males was calculated as 0.23% (56/24,701) on St. Paul Island and 0.21% (13/6,057) on St. George Island. Among adult males, the rate of entanglement was calculated as 0.14% (19/13,610) on St. Paul Island and 0.06% (3/4,706) on St. George Island.

        These are fur seals, and the population is on the order of 600,000. There was no subgroup which was more than 0.23%, with an average of about a tenth of a percent or so … which is about 600 per year. I’m sorry, but disease and predators kill more fur seals than that by far. The mortality among adult males is about 38% per year, and you think we should worry about a tenth of a percent per year? Not gonna happen.
        Nor can I find anyone blaming seal decline on entanglement except your source, some unknown woman who strongly implies it but is careful not to state it outright, providing total deniability … I hate that kind of mealy-mouthing. Instead, I find things like this (emphasis mine)

        Fur seals on the Pribilof Islands have been declining for 40 years, and losses since the early 1970s remain unexplained. A number of possible causes have been investigated. Some factors have been considered and rejected, and others are still being debated. Current leading hypotheses include effects of commercial fisheries and climate change on prey availability in the Bering Sea, and predation by killer whales.

        Lack of prey and predation by whales … nothing about entanglement. Then there’s this:

        Historical declines were caused by commercial harvest
        After unregulated “pelagic” harvests were stopped in 1911, the fur seal population recovered, and by the 1950s was thought to be at pre-harvest levels. The most recent decline began soon after an experimental female harvest was implemented in 1956 to increase the productivity of the herd. Although the consequences of this program were recognized within a few years and the female harvest ended in 1968, the northern fur seal population on the Pribilof Islands continued to decline.

        Now, recall that I specifically spoke about entanglement in the head post … in any case, none of the data I can find supports anything near “40,000 seals a year”. So what you have posted a link to is just some lady’s unregulated alarmism …
        And regarding the ingestion of plastic, the only thing your citation says is the part you quoted, viz:

        Plastic soda rings, “baggies,” styrofoam particles and plastic pellets are often mistaken by sea turtles as authentic food. Clogging their intestines, and missing out on vital nutrients, the turtles starve to death. Seabirds undergo a similar ordeal, mistaking the pellets for fish eggs, small crab and other prey, sometimes even feeding the pellets to their young. Despite the fact that only 0.05% of plastic pieces from surface waters are pellets, they comprise about 70% of the plastic eaten by seabirds. These small plastic particles have been found in the stomachs of 63 of the world’s approximately 250 species of seabirds.

        Sorry, but ingesting plastic particles and pellets wasn’t even mentioned as causing a single death … all they said was it was not unusual to find plastic particles and pellets in bird’s stomachs. So what? For most creatures (including humans), small plastic particles just pass through the digestive tract (or in the case of birds, are regurgitated).
        You go on to say:

        Five minutes on google to validate what my logic.

        Well, it only took me about fifteen minutes to demolish your claims using actual scientific studies rather than the predigested pap that seems to impress you… sorry, but uncited, unsourced articles in the popular press don’t carry any weight here. This is a scientific site, and we’ve seen thousands of false claims in the popular press about a host of subjects. You’re gonna have to up your game, my friend. Don’t get me wrong, I think you can up your game … but so far it’s just empty claims.
        And in any case, here you are claiming that your citation backs up your claim about deaths from creatures eating plastic … and other than the problems for turtles, where as I’ve already discussed it causes some deaths, it doesn’t mention even one death from small particles or from birds eating plastic. Not one. Not saying there aren’t any … just saying your citation said nothing about them.
        Remember that I didn’t say I approved of throwing plastic in the ocean, quite the opposite. I dislike it greatly and don’t do it myself. What I said was that while plastic is a problem, it was undeserving of the hype surrounding the recent article because compared to things like overfishing, reef destruction, and pollution, it is a very minor issue.
        w.

  55. Um, if I did the math right, that 5 Trillion pieces to make up 270 Billion grams has 270 / 5000 grams per piece. I make that about 5 / 100 or 1/20 gram per piece. We’re talking grit or dust here. On average…

  56. While we are on the subject, it is worth tracing back the source of the original alarmist claims about how plastics in the sea were allegedly wiping out millions of sea dwelling creatures and birds. It is one of the Great Lies which has underpinned spurious bans on plastic shopping bags all over the world.
    Google being what (and who) it is, I can’t find the references just now. It is the kind of thing that they put at 3,583 on their list. But, the whole “plastics are murderers” meme was based on a single study of Canadian fishing industry waste products. The researchers extrapolated from bits of nets and other debris of the fishing industry in and around a single site (somewhere around Newfoundland, perhaps, but please correct me) that this represented the whole world.
    From then on, this extraordinary upside-down pyramid of bizzare and dopey measures like banning plastic shopping bags was constructed, all over the world.
    I have tracked this reference down at least twice before, but stupidly have not saved it. It exists, but this old broad is a bit busy just now. Plus, I can’t believe that it hasn’t already been bannered all over the sceptic blogs, which seem to be more interested in arcania than common sense a lot of the time.
    As Willis has pointed out, there is no “island of plastic.” I cannot tell you how many times, when presented with this absurd proposition, I have asked for things like photographs or other evidence, and been excoriated for it.
    Willis, if you have time, trace back the whole history of murderous plastic in the sea, and domestic shopping bags. It is one of the great unexamined con jobs. It all began (and pretty much ended) with a single study of washed up fishing equipment in Canada decades ago.

    • Here you go johanna:
      “The name “Pacific Garbage Patch” has led many to believe that this area is a large and continuous patch of easily visible marine debris items such as bottles and other litter —akin to a literal island of trash that should be visible with satellite or aerial photographs. While higher concentrations of litter items can be found in this area, along with other debris such as derelict fishing nets, much of the debris is actually small pieces of floating plastic that are not immediately evident to the naked eye.
      The debris is continuously mixed by wind and wave action and widely dispersed both over huge surface areas and throughout the top portion of the water column. It is possible to sail through the “garbage patch” area and see very little or no debris on the water’s surface. It is also difficult to estimate the size of these “patches,” because the borders and content constantly change with ocean currents and winds. Regardless of the exact size, mass, and location of the “garbage patch,” manmade debris does not belong in our oceans and waterways and must be addressed.”
      source: NOAA; another WUWT poster left the link some time ago.
      If shopping bags are banned, this will force people to buy plastic bags to put their trash in.

      • Thanks, Zeke, but the thing really want to find is the story of the single Canadian study which started the whole thing off. I think it was published in a British newspaper some years ago.
        Bottom line is, the entire edifice of “millions of sea critters murdered by plastic every year” was based on one study of fishing gear washed up on the coast somewhere in Canada. To my knowledge, there are absolutely so empirical studies on which to base this claim – just lots of subsequent modelling.

      • johanna says, “the thing really want to find is the story of the single Canadian study which started the whole thing off.”
        Okay I went and checked a couple of off-line sources to help, but plastic is not mentioned specifically in the books I have because they focus on chemicals.
        I have found an original MIT paper written for the UN that mention CO2, but they admitted then in the 80’s that there was not enough data to compare past and present. It was a theory without a cause at first; just a ghost suspended with no materiality.
        I also found out that the real goal of the “Sustainability” scientific paradigm is not for people to drive electric cars, but “pedal-power.” Lester R Brown, State of the World 1990.

  57. rooter December 13, 2014 at 10:32 am Edit

    You could do yourself a service by reading the study Willis:

    “However, we stress that our estimates are highly conservative, and may be considered minimum estimates. Our estimates of macroplastic are based on a limited inventory of ocean observations, and would be vastly improved with standardization of methods and more observations. They also do not account for the potentially massive amount of plastic present on shorelines, on the seabed, suspended in the water column, and within organisms.”

    I read it, my friend. Gosh … you mean the results might possibly be twice that, and there might be as much as 2 kg per square km? Be still my beating heart. And in fact, their calculations do include plastic which is below the surface, as they explicitly state in the study.

    You didn’t even read the title:

    “Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea”

    Afloat Willis. Afloat.
    Your calculation is just wrong. Correct it.

    Dear heavens, I ALREADY CORRECTED IT BEFORE YOU OFFERED YOUR FIRST COMMENT! In the units you prefer, it’s 900 grams per square km. as I said before you started your quixotic quest.
    Then when you didn’t notice that I’d restated it in your preferred format, I told you I corrected it. Are you really so concerned that you can’t click on a link?

    Perhaps traction is not for you.

    Perhaps so, perhaps not … but then one of us gets a million page views per year and has peer-reviewed articles in the scientific journals, and the other of us just bites people’s ankles. Coincidence? … perhaps.
    w.

    • Nope Willis. You have not corrected your big error. Do yourself a service. Read what you have written:
      “However, I started out with the question about whether 270,000,000 kilogrammes is a big number or a small number. Looking at the extent of the ocean gives us a very different picture … because it turns out that the 270,000,000 kilograms of plastic works out to 200 grams of plastic per cubic kilometer of the ocean.”
      And:
      “And as for the other small pieces of random plastic … well, I just can’t get all that passionate about the dangers of 200 grams of plastic for every BILLION tonnes of sea water (1 cubic km = one billion tonnes).”
      Not corrected.
      Are such errors embarrising for you Willis? Perhaps you are trying to reduce the traction for this blog. And for yourself.
      [How are you converting units? One gigatonne is one billion metric tonnes ( 1 Gt = 1 x 10^9 tonnes) .. One gigatonne of water has a volume of one billion cubic meters, or one cubic kilometer. (1 Gt water ≡ 1 km³)”
      1 GT = 1 gigaton
      = 109 tons (U.S. tons or “short tons,” each 907.185 kg or 2000 lbs)
      1 Gt = 1 gigatonne
      = 109 tonnes (metric tons, each 1000 kg or 2204.62 lbs)
      = 1012 kg
      = 1.1023 GT
      = the mass of 1 cubic kilometer of fresh water
      = the mass of 1.091 cubic km of ice
      Ice has a density of about 0.9167
      Seawater has a density of about 1.027 .mod]

      • Thanks, rooter. I see you desired that I corrected it in the head post, rather than in the comments, which you might have said and saved us all a heap of your unpleasantness. Done. Anything else?
        I do have to laugh at the idea of you advising anyone about gaining traction, however …
        Regards,
        w.

  58. So, how do you re-tension those 345,000 volt hi-tension wires when they break in a corner ?
    I just got to see it up close and personal, it’s better than football.
    They were good about putting up with my inane conversation.(six trucks and maybe 20 workers).
    Nothing like block and tackle anchored to the base of a tower, and the tow hitch of a truck of sufficient power to make it work (I guess).

  59. Willis you state “iron, if you have evidence that the “small ingestible plastic” is a problem in the ocean, then please cite it. As a lifelong sailor, surfer, commercial and sport fisherman, and commercial and sport diver, I’m always willing to learn more about the ocean.
    All the best to you,”
    So, I did as you asked. And your response you spend several paragraphs arguing with yourself about entanglement? Huh? When you get around to the actual subject.
    “Well, it only took me about fifteen minutes to demolish your claims using actual scientific studies rather than the predigested pap that seems to impress you… sorry, but uncited, unsourced articles in the popular press don’t carry any weight here. This is a scientific site, and we’ve seen thousands of false claims in the popular press about a host of subjects. You’re gonna have to up your game, my friend. Don’t get me wrong, I think you can up your game … but so far it’s just empty claims.
    And in any case, here you are claiming that your citation backs up your claim about deaths from creatures eating plastic … and other than the problems for turtles, where as I’ve already discussed it causes some deaths, it doesn’t mention even one death from small particles or from birds eating plastic. Not one. Not saying there aren’t any … just saying your citation said nothing about them.”
    Apparently, you aren’t really willing to learn more. Just pretend it for a bit until someone challenges you then start in with the attacks. Where the hell did I “claim about deaths from creatures eating plastic” Please site the specific words yada yada. I simply stated logically small ingestible pieces of plastic are more of a concern then larger pieces. I even pointed out the my google search was cursory, but I apparently insulted Mr. know it all and therefore must be raked over the coals so he can show his superior intellect.
    Your specious strawman tactics may work for you but they are very pathetic. Let’s look at one.
    “it only took me about fifteen minutes to demolish your claims using actual scientific studies”
    Please point me to the “actual scientific studies” you mentioned, not new ones, that studied small ingestible plastics, not the strawman entanglement argument you made up. Perhaps you should up your game.
    Next up “here you are claiming that your citation backs up your claim about deaths from creatures eating plastic” I never made any such claim. I never claimed the author was right, valid, or etc… I said it backed up my logic, along with the multiple other links that come up when you search google. I even was looking at one link that was a scientific gathering to discuss this issue. You know how to use google, and since you care I am sure you have already done that. You just can’t admit that you may have made a logical error in arguing about entanglement and larger pieces.
    Oh and by the way I didn’t know that some .edu site I had never heard of until I did the search was “uncited, unsourced articles in the popular press”, I guess it may be popular and I just don’t know it, but unsourced? there’s this thing at the bottom, I think they call it a link, it says “bibliography”, but hey Mr. Know It All says I’m impressed easily by predigested pap and I don’t have a good game so what do I know.
    You seem to think acting childish is upping ones game, so perhaps I can do that too.
    You should also note, I never even claimed the conclusion of your article was wrong.
    All the best to you

    • ironargonaut December 16, 2014 at 12:48 am

      Willis you state

      “iron, if you have evidence that the “small ingestible plastic” is a problem in the ocean, then please cite it. As a lifelong sailor, surfer, commercial and sport fisherman, and commercial and sport diver, I’m always willing to learn more about the ocean.
      All the best to you,”

      … Apparently, you aren’t really willing to learn more. Just pretend it for a bit until someone challenges you then start in with the attacks. Where the hell did I “claim about deaths from creatures eating plastic” Please site the specific words yada yada.

      iron, I’m always willing to learn more. Perhaps I misunderstood you. I thought that when you said that

      First, small ingestible plastic is the biggest issue. I would give a three year old a plastic bottle but only with out the cap. Only talking about large pieces is somewhat of a straw man argument.

      that you were talking about deaths from ingesting small plastic pieces being a major problem.
      If not, what were you talking about, and where is your evidence? Because the cite you gave only said:

      Seabirds undergo a similar ordeal, mistaking the pellets for fish eggs, small crab and other prey, sometimes even feeding the pellets to their young. Despite the fact that only 0.05% of plastic pieces from surface waters are pellets, they comprise about 70% of the plastic eaten by seabirds. These small plastic particles have been found in the stomachs of 63 of the world’s approximately 250 species of seabirds.

      However, seabirds eat a lot of indigestible things, including the natural plastic “pens” of squids … which in many cases they just regurgitate.
      You haven’t provided any evidence that eating small plastic pieces makes sea creatures die, and you haven’t provided any evidence that eating small plastic pieces makes sea creatures sick … which is why I said you need to up your game.
      Unless once again I have misunderstood you, which is possible …
      Now, if you’d like an example of scientific evidence, here’s some (emphasis mine):

      Plastic ingestion has not been reported as a significant health problem in seabird populations, but several studies have indicated negative effects on individual birds. Ingested plastic may distend or block the proventriculus or intestine, causing erosions or ulcers (Pettit et al. 1981; Sileo and Fefer 1987) or possibly starvation (Dickerman and Goelet 1987). The presence of ingested plastic was correlated with elevated (but nonthreatening) concentrations of polychlorinated biphenyls in great shearwaters,Puffinus gravis (Ryan et al. 1988), and with reduced body weight in red phalaropes, Phalaropus fulicarius (Connors and Smith 1982 ) and domestic chickens,Callus domesticus(Ryan1988a). Other studies have shown no correlation between body weight and plastic presence (Day et al. 1985; Ryan1987b). Ryan and Jackson(1987) found no reduction in assimilation efficiency in white-chinned petrels, Procellaria aequinoctialis, artificially fed large quantities of plastic particles.

      SOURCE: NOAA
      Which is what I said. Plastic in the ocean is a problem, and I dislike it greatly. However, it’s not the end of the ocean. It’s not what it’s hyped up to be. It’s not a significant problem compared to things like pollution and overfishing.
      Note the difference between the scientific study results and the quote from your citation, which comprised everything your citation said about small plastic particles.
      My best regards to you,
      w.

      • I would imagine bottom feeding fish, would have a system to expel non-digestible sand etc. so plastic should also be expelled. Do you know of any data to suggest that other fish are or are not effected by small plastic pieces? Logically to me this would be a larger problem then large chunks of plastic. A 1kg hunk of plastic in 1km^2 of ocean surface is less concerning then 1000 1gram pieces floating in the same 1km^2 of ocean. This is what I am trying to convey. Do I have data to back it up? No. Logically I can see no reason to assume other wise.
        You have already shown why in your opinion why large chunks of plastic are not necessarily a super killer. I tend to agree with your logic on this. I just think we would be intellectually dishonest if we don’t discuss what impact small plastics may have.
        You won’t get any argument out of me that almost every problem is overhyped. Which is sad because when real issues arise the reflex is to assume it is overhyped.
        Real pollution such as plastic in the ocean sucks. If you are like me there is nothing more disgusting then hiking across a mountain meadow and seeing garbage, or garbage on a beautiful beach. How many superfund sites could have been cleaned up with the billions wasted on AGW.
        I honestly don’t think our thinking is that different.
        Best regards,
        Ironargonaut

      • Thanks for your kind reply, ironargonaut. I agree that I “don’t think our thinking is that different”. Here’s my deal. I’m a sailor and a diver and a commercial fisherman. I’m likely one of the few people reading this thread who’s ever had the fun of untangling a sea lion from a fishing net (protip—they have big sharp teeth, and their breath absolutely reeks, so work carefully from upwind).
        And I, like you, think that plastic in the ocean sucks.
        As to whether the fish have a way to get rid of unwanted small bits of indigestible stuff, I have to assume so, or they would have died long ago. There’s plenty of small bits of natural stuff that float around in the ocean and some would be consumed by various fish. Hang on … OK, here’s an interesting article on the subject.
        Always more to learn,
        All the best,
        w.

      • Not sure if would apply to fish, but I had a dog that occasionally would eat pieces of “things” that passed through its digestive system but parts of which were still hanging out of its butt after a poop.
        I believed the next digestive movement would have fixed the problem, but the dog wasn’t sure (you could tell by its demeanor, tail down and not its happy self), so I would pull out offending material, and the dog would instantly revert to his happy self.

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