An Ocean of Plastic

Guest Essay by Kip Hansen


Images such as this appear on the Internet and in the Main Stream Media, alongside of almost every article or report about the pollution of the Earth’s oceans with plastics of all kinds. The image is usually associated with the words “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” in the text of the article. The implication by association is that the image is a photograph of said ‘garbage patch’.

This clip from the Guardian shows a typical example:


The Guardian is atypical in that it states, in the caption, that the photo is of Manila Bay, Philippines – garbage forced by the wind into a raft near shore after a tropical storm washed all the trash from the city streets and slums into the bay. I’ve seen similar scenes in the Rio Ozama in Santo Domingo, this one at the “yacht marina” on the eastern shore just below the swing bridge:


There are low-lying slums upriver – tropical storms or even simple heavy rainfalls wash trash off the streets and into the river – hurricanes wash entire neighborhoods into the river. There appears to be a door-less cheap refrigerator floating amongst the other debris.

There is a lot of plastic trash and debris going to the world’s oceans. It used to be dumped intentionally – New York City barged its municipal trash out to sea and tipped it in for years and years, as recently as 1992.

There is no longer any country or municipality known to be disposing of municipal trash and garbage at sea today. Most trash and garbage is fairly readily decomposed in the natural environment and in modern landfills. Plastics, however, are less prone to biodegradation – and some types of plastic are very resistant. As the two photos above illustrate, Manilla Bay and Rio Ozama, lots of plastic ends up in the sea.

Dr. Jenna R. Jambeck is one of the world’s leading experts on trash – and specifically on plastics entering the oceans. Her group at the Environmental Engineering College of Engineering, University of Georgia has published many papers on the problem, most recently “Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean” (summary here – full .pdf here). From the summary:

Key findings:
● The amount of plastic waste entering the oceans from land each year exceeds 4.8 million tons (Mt), and may be as high as 12.7 Mt – or nearly one to three orders of magnitude greater than the reported mass of plastic in high-concentration ocean gyres.
● Quantities of plastic entering the ocean are growing rapidly with the global increase in population and plastics use, with the potential for cumulative inputs of plastic waste into the ocean as high as 250 Mt by 2025.
● Discharges of plastic are spread around the globe from the 192 countries with coastal borders considered in the study, but the largest quantities are estimated to be coming from a relatively small number of countries in Asia and other middle income, rapidly developing countries. The top 20 countries account for 83% of the mismanaged plastic waste available to enter the ocean.
● Reducing the amount of mismanaged waste by 50% in these top 20 countries would result in a nearly 40% decline in inputs of plastic to the ocean.

One rightly wonders about their estimated range of plastic waste entering the seas – given as 4.8 to 12.7 million tons. The reason for that spread is that after a massive amount of calculating plastic production by all nations, plastic manufacturing by all nations, percentage of plastic in the nations waste stream, and the amount of waste that does not end up proper landfills – all this to arrive at an amount of plastic “on the loose” – their “mismanaged plastic waste available to enter the ocean” – Jambeck and team simply guess that 15% of that plastic potentially ends up in the oceans.

Now that’s a lot of plastic and it certainly doesn’t belong in the oceans – any of it, really. But we must be pragmatic – some stuff always gets away from us even when we have efficient waste collection systems and enforced recycling. I admit – I’m guilty – I have had plastic items blow or wash off the deck of my venerable old motor sailing catamaran, the Golden Dawn: the occasional five-gallon bucket, a plastic drinking glass, a plastic washbasin, my favorite deck chair (dang!) – if this happens at anchor, we run out in the dinghy and fetch it back but if we are underway, under sail, it is often impractical to double back for a small item.

Here is a photo of the real Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch:

Real_Great_Pacific_GPSee all that plastic garbage floating around tangling up the porpoises and sea turtles and albatrosses?

Neither do I.

Don’t be surprised. In my travels at sea (1/2 of my adult lifetime on the briny deep – well, at least actually living aboard a ship or boat), my experience is that seeing something floating in the open ocean is rare – rare enough that it always calls for at least an investigation through binoculars, and if the item looks interesting, we might make a course change, if possible, to check it out. The most common items are things that have fallen off fishing boats – buckets – gallon jugs – buoys and floats of different types (which are recovered if possible for their usefulness). I have never come across any tangles of floats and nets which can be dangerous, especially if under motor power, as they can wrap around shafts and props, in our 13,000 miles of voyaging in the Golden Dawn. There are pictures of these tangles on the web – and I have seen a small one caught on the sea side of a barrier reef, but have never seen one in the open ocean.

Dr. Jambeck and I corresponded by email about plastic at sea and she related to me that on a recent voyage from Lanzarote (in the Canary Islands off the shore of Africa) to Martinique (one of the Windward Islands of the Caribbean), a trip of 3,200 miles, they recorded sighting 15 floating items – “mostly buckets and buoys, with at least one bottle too”. That’s one item every 215 miles or so. One wishes the highways and byways of America were so clean.

So where is all that plastic? Where is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

From NOAA’s Ocean Service — Office of Response and Restoration we have this page:

“The NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Carey Morishige takes down two myths floating around with the rest of the debris about the garbage patches in a recent post on the Marine Debris Blog:

1. There is no “garbage patch,” a name which conjures images of a floating landfill in the middle of the ocean, with miles of bobbing plastic bottles and rogue yogurt cups. Morishige explains this misnomer:
“While it’s true that these areas have a higher concentration of plastic than other parts of the ocean, much of the debris found in these areas are small bits of plastic (microplastics) that are suspended throughout the water column. A comparison I like to use is that the debris is more like flecks of pepper floating throughout a bowl of soup, rather than a skim of fat that accumulates (or sits) on the surface.”
2. There are many “garbage patches,” and by that, we mean that trash congregates to various degrees in numerous parts of the Pacific and the rest of the ocean. These natural gathering points appear where rotating currents, winds, and other ocean features converge to accumulate marine debris, as well as plankton, seaweed, and other sea life.”




Note the scale on the right. The jar is about 2 inches in diameter, and the plastic bits fill it up to about 2 inches high. It took a lot of sieving the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to collect that much.

This agrees with my own impromptu research on our beach-side walks along Cape Canaveral Beach, Florida. This is what we find washed up:


This sample was taken from a one-mile stretch of beach that is not raked or cleaned by the county, over a period of two days of careful searching from just above the high water line to the low water line. On the right is what we identified as “Tourist Trash” – left by recent beach goers. On the left is the Flotsom and Jetsom – stuff that has been floating on the sea and been washed ashore.

It is an interesting mix, and if you look carefully, you’ll recognize the similarities to the bits and bobs found in NOAA’s jar above. We have a lot of little bits of plastic of no particular shape. We don’t have bottles, cups, plastic cutlery or very much that is recognizable. There is something (red) that looks like a six-pack holder, some bits if plastic rope reduced to threads, an o-ring and the remains of a plastic zip-lock bag. For size, the o-ring is about 1 inch in diameter.

Jenna Jambeck summarizes it saying that the amount of plastic estimated to be washing into the oceans is “one to three orders of magnitude greater than the reported mass of plastic in high-concentration ocean gyres”. That means that 10 to 1,000 times more plastic is going into the oceans than can be found.

So, the Big Question about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – all the Garbage Patches – is:


“Where is all that plastic?”

Here’s the headlines:

Science Magazine: “Ninety-nine percent of the ocean’s plastic is missing”

National Geographic: “Ocean Garbage Patch Not Growing—Where’s “Missing” Plastic?”

Here’s the data, in graphic form:

Untitled-3Original Caption: “Fig. S6. Size distributions of plastic fragments by ocean basin. Size distributions were built with the plastic items collected along the circumnavigation: 1565 in North Pacific Ocean, 1043 items in North Atlantic Ocean, 259 items in South Pacific Ocean, 3339 items in South Atlantic Ocean, and 1153 items in Indian Ocean. The gap in the plastic size distributions below 1 mm was present in all ocean basins. Dashed vertical line [lime green for visibility – kh]  corresponds to 1 mm size limits.”

What are we looking at here? The graphic shows “Abundance of Plastic (items)” – the number of bits of plastic – found by ocean by size of item. The image is a bit confusing as to the Log Length (mm) and Length (mm) – the scale at the bottom gives the sizes in millimeters. The lime-green line is at 1 mm. The largest item recorded is 158 mm (about six inches). The bulk of items found fall in the 25 mm down to fractional mm range. That size range, in items you can hold in your hand, is from the diameter of a US quarter dollar (24.26 mm) down thru the thickness of a US dime (1.36 mm) to the thickness of a sheet of common 20 lb. copy paper (0.1 mm).

Now, one can see a bit of colored plastic that is 25 mm square – the size of a quarter. But they found very few quarter-sized bits, even combining all the oceans. The numbers don’t start ramping-up until one gets as small as 10-13 mm – for comparison, a dime is 17 mm – so, smaller than a dime. The real peak of bits found is in the 4 to 5 mm to 1 mm size range (1 mm is about the thickness of a CD or DVD).

Why does the graph look like this? Mainly it is that as plastic items degrade from the UV in the sunlight, from submersion in salt water, and wave action – breaking into bits, over and over – the bits get smaller and smaller. Thus, we see a rapid doubling and redoubling of the number of bits. Until….?

Until the size gets to about 1mm – then they rapidly decrease and virtually disappear.

This is not because they can’t sieve them out of the water – they have hardily tired with smaller and smaller sieves and searching under microscopes for those littler bits. They just aren’t there.

That is the chief finding of Cózar et. al. What should have happened is that the numbers should have kept doubling and re-doubling. And they didn’t. The littler bits just disappear.

This is what is meant by the headlines: “Ninety-nine percent of the ocean’s plastic is missing” and “Ocean Garbage Patch Not Growing—Where’s “Missing” Plastic?”


“Where is all that plastic?” – Part II

I always ask my wife: “Do you want the quick, easy answer? or the real answer?” Over the years she has tended towards getting the real answer, much to her credit, even though she know that it usually takes much longer.

I’ll give you the quick and easy first: The plastic gets eaten.

That is the simple and straightforward physical fact. Something is eating those littler and littler bits of plastic. Once the bits get smaller than 1 mm – they get eaten up by the denizens of the deep.

I’m sure you all have seen the sad pictures of the poor albatross babies, laying there, a bag of dried bones and the remains of a stomach full of soda bottle caps.

dead_albatross_chickJust to clarify, I’ve counted about a dozen different pictures of dead albatross chicks from Midway on the internet, some of them look to be several seasons old. Midway Atoll is the winter home of nearly a million nesting albatrosses. Roughly 450,000 pairs wedge their way into a scant 2½ square miles of land surface. Not very many albatross chicks are dying from being fed plastic. In a Darwinian sense, mother albatrosses who feed chicks too much plastic don’t get to pass on their genes, thus improving the species.

We are not talking about this kind of “eating”. Nor the eating done by the occasional misguided sea turtle thinking a floating plastic bag is a jellyfish. Nor the visible bits gobbled up by every type of sea bird and fish that snaps at anything that moves. A lot of that goes on and biologists are finding plastic in the digestive tracts of lots of different species. There is, as yet, no evidence that the plastic is harming any of these birds and animals – with the exception of those obviously choking or getting clogged up by something they shouldn’t have tried to get down.

Aside: I have watched a cormorant struggle for an hour to regurgitate “a fish too large” – he got it into his throat, but couldn’t get it any further. I thought he was going to die, but after an hour, by hooking the bottom half of his beak on a board on the dock and pushing forward with his body to force his beak open further than he could normally open it, he got the fish out – and gave up on it, happy, I suppose, to have survived. So, birds do eat things they can’t handle – some of it plastic, I would think.

So, who or what is doing the eating?

One hypothesis put forward is that the fish that normally eat zooplankton are eating the similarly sized bits of plastic. It is quite certain that some little fishes eat little bits of plastic:

“Zooplanktivorous predators represent an abundant trophic guild in the ocean, and it is known that accidental ingestion of plastic occurs during their feeding activity. The reported incidence of plastic in stomachs of epipelagic zooplanktivorous fish ranges from 1 to 29%, and in stomachs of small mesopelagic fish from 9 to 35%. The most frequent plastic size ingested by fish in all these studies was between 0.5 and 5 mm, matching the predominant size of plastic debris where global losses occur in our assessment. Also, these plastic sizes are commonly found in predators of zooplanktivorous fish.” (Cózar et. al – source)

Cózar speculates that this ingested plastic would be defecated and return to the surface. Some would be semi-permanently encased in feces and, with the addition of pelagic lifeforms (tiny barnacles, sea worms, and the like) sink to the bottom of the sea. Some of the fishes, with plastic now in their digestive tracks would  themselves be eaten by larger fish which would now carry the plastic load and accumulate it  – or not – again, defecating it out, either to float back to the surface or sink to the bottom. There is no data available on how much in either case.

Do remember though – higher lifeforms are all built on the basic tube model – like an earthworm – what goes in the mouth comes out the other end after processing. Almost all animals have the ability to pass whatever they take in. Some animals, which eat other animals whole (such as owls), have the ability to the regurgitate undigested contents of their stomachs (cats, too). So whatever plastic goes into these little fishes probably comes out somewhere. In the end (unintended pun), “fishes eating the tiny plastic bits” probably doesn’t account for the missing 99%.

What else could be going on?

Remember the Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill? Scientific American magazine ran this piece: “Meet the Microbes Eating the Gulf Oil Spill”.

Well, meet the microbes eating the ocean’s plastic:



Here is what is apparently happening. As the bits of plastic get reduced in size below the threshold of 1 mm or so, the surface area vs.volume ratio becomes favorable for the microbes to eat the bit up entirely. This is similar to the way crushed ice is more quickly melted than large cubes – and why big icebergs last a long time, but an ice cube in the same ocean, at the same water temperature, disappears very quickly.

Ocean biologists are not sure what this portends. Plastics commonly contain contaminants. Marine microbiologist Tracy Mincer of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts is quoted in Nature saying:

”Plastic-eating bacteria might help explain why the amount of debris in the ocean has levelled off, despite continued pollution. But researchers don’t yet know whether the digestion produces harmless by-products, or whether it might introduce toxins into the food chain.

“To understand if it’s a good thing or not, we have to understand the entire system,” says marine microbiologist Tracy Mincer of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

Plastics contain toxins such as phthalates, and also absorb additional toxic chemicals such as persistent organic pollutants from the ocean, says Mark Browne, an ecologist at University College Dublin in Ireland, who was not involved with the project. Those chemicals could leach out into the microscopic animals that eat the bacteria, or broken down microscopic plastic particles could enter cells and release their chemicals there, he says.” (Nature news) .

While there is not, as of yet, any quantitative analysis of how much plastic micro-critters are eating, Cózar’s results indicate that as plastics break into smaller and smaller pieces, they get removed from the environment, by something, very rapidly – so rapidly, in fact, that despite what are believed to be increasing quantities of plastics entering the oceans, the amount of plastic found in the oceans is not increasing.


Take Home Message:

We each need to do all we can to keep every sort of trash and plastic contained and disposed of in a responsible manner – this keeps it out of the oceans (and the rest of the natural environment).

Volunteerism to clean up beaches and reefs is effective and worthwhile.

Responsible boating includes keeping your trash (and especially plastics) under control and disposed of properly ashore.

The “floating rafts of plastic garbage”-version of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a pernicious myth that needs to be dispelled at every opportunity.

Have a little more faith in “Nature” – the natural system finds a way to use most everything – in the case of oceanic plastics, as homes and food.

The “missing 99% of the plastic in the oceans” has been eaten, mostly by bacteria and other microbes. These little critters will continue to eat the plastic and if we reduce the amount of plastic going into the oceans, they may eventually eat it all up.

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Author’s Comment Policy:

I’ll be happy to answer your questions and give more references if anyone wants them. I have worked on this issue off-and-on for the last year to satisfy my own curiosity.

I will admit that I guessed the outcome years ago – like solving the who-dun-it in a mystery novel – after the Deepwater Horizon finding.

My experience with the sea has taught me that everything gets used for something – once I tried to collect a beer can off a reef, only to have it snatched back out of my hand by the octopus that was using it as a door to his hide-away. Almost any solid object placed in the sea becomes a welcomed home for something. And, almost anything is food for some beast or some plant.

The largest piece of floating debris we ever saw on the open ocean was a full-sized home refrigerator.

And this week in local news: “Thousands of Coffee Cans Wash Up on Florida Beach”.

My best beach-combing find, on the east-facing shore of Big Sand Cay in the Turks, was a six-inch green plastic brontosaurus – which had been at sea for so long that by the time I found it, it had been renamed a “Apatosaurus”. I was informed by a precocious four-year old that it could also be a Brachiosaurus – which has the same shape but is much larger.

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224 thoughts on “An Ocean of Plastic

  1. Nice article. As a science teacher not far from Cape Canaveral I must agree with your findings. I have seen very little trash on Brevard beaches. It is useful to have information when questions such as this pop up in class and in family gatherings. Thank You

      • The video is dubious, since much of what is shown is close to shore, and we have no idea about the incidence rate – yes if you look long and hard enough, or throw in some trash yourself, you are bound to find something, and to show years of search in 60 seconds, and pretend it is what you can see in a few minutes is a disingenuous in itself.

      • I watched the videos up to a point (the nerd spots another dolphin). I kept expecting them to pull up next to plastic texas, but they never got there. We’re they waiting for the third hour to show us the island?

        Because life is too short.

      • Somebody help me here. I have always thought that something was less dense than water – and floated; or more dense than water – and sank.

      • Reply to Ken ==> You are right — sort of. As one goes down in the ocean, the density (specific gravity) of the water itself changes under pressure…..ask any scuba diver. The issue at stake is Neutral Buoyancy. When barnacles or other “heavy” sea life attach to floating debris (which they do because it is floating…) they reduce its buoyancy. Eventually, a floating item will accumulate so much stuff growing on it that it will sink, but only to the point where is is neutrally buoyant.

        All fish depend on this bit of physics to be able to stay at a certain depth without having to fight positive or negative buoyancy (which would require effort to swim down or up) using air bladders and similar mechanisms.

      • Reply to dbstealy ==> The issue at stake is Neutral Buoyancy.

        From the Wiki:


        When neutral buoyancy is taking place, it appears as though the object/substance is floating in the middle of the fluid, or somewhere in between the bottom and the surface.

        Appearance in nature

        A fish’s swim bladder manipulates neutral buoyancy by controlling the amount of air in the swim bladder, allowing it to swim at different depths. In effect a fish’s density becomes higher or lower than the surrounding water due to the varied counter-action of the density of air in its bladder.”

        It is a matter of simple physics.

      • Kip,

        I still disagree. Sure, fish can remain at the same depth, but the reason is different; the fish controls it’s depth.

        If what you say were true, there would be strata of junk at all depths, from the surface to the bottom, and each piece of junk with the same ‘neutral buoyancy’ would remain right at that particular underwater pressure point (depth).

        The real world does not act that way. As usual, I go with what real world observations.

      • Reply to dbsteealy ==> That is the point — that IS what they find…”“Most of the trash floats under the surface of the water, making it almost impossible to view from the air or the deck of boats.”” That is what one finds if one scubas or snorkels, that is how it is in the real world.

        The fish maintains its own buoyancy by adjustments to its swim bladder, making it more or less buoyant, thus achieving “neutral buoyancy” a the depth it wishes to maintain, just like a scuba diver who adjusts his
        BC vest for the depth he wishes to maintain. This applies when they wish to make a biggish change, ten or twenty feet up of down. Fish do not swim up and down in the water every time they change depths, unless they are in a hurry…they just adjust buoyancy and float up or sink down.

        Our floating bit of “plastic plus heavy stuff” doesn’t make a choice, it just sinks until it reaches a zone of neutral buoyancy, then floats at that depth range, where it is neutrally buoyant, until something changes — either it gets heavier, with new growth, or stuff flakes off and it gets lighter.

        You really must read the Wiki piece on negative buoyancy and Jambeck or Cózar, and the NOAA page on Garbage Patches, so you can see that what you describe is what they find.

        One can’t just “disagree” with basic physics….

      • Kip,

        I did read it, and I still disagree. Not because I “disagree with basic physics”. We don’t have all the answers in physics, which is what that non-answer implies.

        I disagree because observing the real world shows us that at any particular depth, there is not a layer of junk that has sunk to that point and stopped. If that were true, you could find a particular depth that was clogged with stuff that has the same bouyancy.

        That doesn’t happen. Things either float or they sink. They may sink very slowly in the ocean. But once they begin to sink, they do not stop at a certain depth.

        Now, maybe we’re talking about two different things. If an object has exactly the same bouyancy as the ocean water around it, then it will remain at that depth. But you didn’t say that. You said that the object will sink until it reaches a certain depth, and then it will remain there.

        But that’s not what real world observations tell us, and given the choice between empirical observations and ‘what physics tells us’, then my conclusion is that the real world is right, and we just don’t have all the answers. Because objects beginning to sink do not stop at a certain depth and stay there.

        But by all means, if that happens, show me a layer of junk that has sunk, then stopped at a particular depth. I’m always willing to change my mind.

      • Reply to dbstealy ==> If this comment doesn’t clear this up, we will have to take this offline — to email — as I can’t think of a way to disabuse you of your incorrect idea if this and the references I have supplied and the explanations of neutral buoyancy don’t clear it up for you.

        Anyone who has spent time diving (scuba diving, free diving, snorkeling) or served on submarines understands this from personal experience.

        The physics comes into play in the understanding that sea water has different densities at different depths, which means that items with different densities (specific gravities) are neutrally buoyant at different depths. Things, items, with specific gravities less than the surrounding water float — more than, sink — the same as, suspended. The density of sea water increases with depth. A depth difference of 1 foot doesn’t make much difference in density, but 20 feet does.

        As for the plastic bits, they do find them spread out through the water column , at different depths, according to their relative buoyancies. That’s what this part of NOAA’s Marine Debris Blog states, I thought, quite clearly:

        ….much of the debris found in these areas are small bits of plastic (microplastics) that are suspended throughout the water column. A comparison I like to use is that the debris is more like flecks of pepper floating throughout a bowl of soup, rather than a skim of fat that accumulates (or sits) on the surface.”

        They are “suspended” because they are floating at the depth at which their specific gravity provides neutral buoyancy. The depth range for items of identical specific gravities/densities would be fairly broad — ten to twenty feet, and subject to current, upwellings, and downdwelling.

      • Kip says:

        They are “suspended” because they are floating at the depth at which their specific gravity provides neutral buoyancy.

        Well, Kip, you know what I think of NOAA, but even so, they do not say that plastic junk forms strata at various depths. In fact, it doesn’t. I’ve done a lot of scuba diving, and I have never observed that phenomenon. Has anyone here?

        In theory I suppose that “neutral bouyancy” can be acheived. But in practice it doesn’t happen; nothing but water at STP has exactly the same buoyancy as similar water, so objects either sink or they float. it may take a while. But you never see plastic junk forming layers at various depths. Never.

        Once an object begins to sink, it does not stop sinking until it hits bottom. There is so much junk in the oceans that if gobs of plastic strata did form at various depths, it would have been widely observed and discussed by now. And I don’t mean someone’s opinion in Wikipedia.

        So as Yogi Berra said:

        “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”

        As usual, observations overrule ‘theory’.

      • Reply to dbstealy ==> I’ll write you email to clear this up.

        Short form: There is no “strata” of junk because each individual piece — each bit — carries its own exact load of extra weight, and had its own SG to start with — thus each individual piece has its very own exact specific gravity which determines the depth range at which it will be at neutral buoyancy. . Thus there is no one strata of junk, but rather “small bits of plastic (microplastics) that are suspended throughout the water column. “

      • Kip,

        That had already occurred to me. But there are instances with millions of identical plastic parts in shipping containers, which should (‘in theory’) all be at the same depth.

        Do you have any examples or observations of that?

        (PS: no email necessary. This is wherre these things get sorted out.)

      • Reply to dbstealy ==> Hmmmm….I have never heard or read of a container of plastic parts dumping lots and lots of identical parts into the ocean. We have the example of the famous sneakers that helped map the Japan current.

        But even with identical plastic parts — say little floating gears for some toy — each would start out floating, and then be dispersed by wind and waves over some larger area — some individual bits would break up into littler bits, other individual bits would begin to be colonized, each at individual rates (serendipitous), each would eventually become heavier than the surface water, and begin its decent, mixing in the layer where it is neutrally buoyant. But, the critters would continue to grow on it..adding to the tendency to sink to a new depth range…it the parts were thin, they may have been on the surface long enough to begin to break up, into different sized bits, with different critters, etc etc.

        I can’t imagine a real world case in which pelegaic plastic would end up rafting or discernibly stratifying in the water column in the way you describe — in addition to the points willis makes about the mixing action at different ocean layers.

      • Kip,

        Well, those are reasons we don’t find plastic junk strata in the oceans. But that’s the same as trying to prove a negative. What I’d like are some real world observations showing what you’re saying.

        All the real world evidence I’ve ever seen says that when something begins to sink, it continues sinking until it hits bottom. Show me something that starts to sink, then stops at a particular depth.

      • I did some scuba diving many years ago that was largely curtailed when I began bleeding from sinuses at 50 ft. My recollection is that once I had sufficient weight on my belt to overcome the buoyancy of the wet suit and tank, I was no more inclined to rise from 50 ft as I was from 10. As an object with neutral buoyancy goes deeper, the density of the object is increased from the added pressure. Why wouldn’t small bits with neutral density act like any solid suspended in liquid? Density increases with depth, reducing buoyancy.

      • Reply to verdeviewer ==> The plastic and the critters on it are not compressed (much)…therefore they do not get denser. The same object becomes more buoyant compared to the water around it as it gets deeper — this is why a diver must release air from his BC go go down in the water. Adding air causes him to rise.

        Remember, we are talking of little bits of solid plastic half the size of a dime and smaller, with barnacles and sea worms attached.

        They get a tiny bit heavier than the water they displace and begin to sink, but reach a point of neutral buoyancy and become suspended at a certain depth range…if a current takes them up, they sink back down when the current no longer acts on them. Same with the bits that would be floating but get carried down by a mixing current….when they are free of the current, they float back up.

      • Kip,
        Ah, yes, the “BC,” AKA buoyancy compensator. I thought the compensation was for the lead it took to counter the buoyancy of the wet suit and body. Apparently what I had is now called a “snorkel vest.” Manually inflatable/deflatable it was, with a push-button blow hose and a CO2 cartrige pull cord for emergencies. Of course the air had to be let out to dive, since it was basically a life vest when inflated.

      • Having been unable to clear sinuses on my final cert dive, I recall an intense change in pressure going to (IIRC) 50 ft. But I don’t recall a need for buoyancy compensation to stay at the bottom and do the safety procedures.

        Anyone out there working at SeaWorld who can do a plastic bits flotation test in a killer whale pool?

      • @verdeviewer
        “Anyone out there working at SeaWorld who can do a plastic bits flotation test in a killer whale pool?”

        LOL, so very, very wrong, but still I can’t stop snickering…

      • Verdeviewer,
        It sounds like you may have a problem with clearing and equalizing your sinuses, or a part of. That intense pressure you felt at 50 ft. down was probably that obstruction, or the failure to equalize, to clear and caused your bleed. You may have a small abscess. Maybe your dive took care of the problem.

      • Smokey says “very, very wrong.” Well, those pools are more than 30 feet deep and filled with filtered sea water—a perfect place for a test. (Of course, you might want to move the whales out first…)

      • Dahlquist, yes, blocked sinus cavities made for a very painful dive. I only used my equipment once after that, off an isolated beach north of Mulege on the Sea of Cortez, and the only reason I used the SCUBA was to make it easier to spear a few fish for a dinner cooked over a driftwood fire as the moon rose from the sea in what I first feared was a nuclear fireball. That, coupled with the sight of a scorpion being broiled as it tried to escape from the driftwood we’d collected bare-handed at dusk, seared the memory of the occasion in my brain.

    • Although I do not dispute the article’s accuracy, I have experienced a different situation. My wife and I are very lucky and live on 500 + ft of beach front. As the fish goes (vice the crow flying), we are about 75-100 miles from the ocean. I have picked up trash on the beach regularly and have collected a huge amount of plastic, and would bet it would amount to several hundreds of pieces over a year, if not over a thousand.

      Additionally, when I look closely at the water, I can easily see many small pieces of thin plastic dispersed in the water.

      I guess the plastic pollution problem is a local phenomenon; regions such as ours are going to have it worse. Too many people are pigs.

      But the fish are abundant, as are eagles, gulls, kingfishers, heron and osprey.


      • Reply to JBP ==> If you live inland along something like the Indian River, an arm of the sea inside barrier islands, you will have a lot of litter — just like along the roads on the other side of your home. It is a problem in America, we do have a rising litter problem. People litter from their cars, at the park, at the beach, from their boats. It blows or is washed into the local waters and then the wind and waves push it onto the beaches or shores of the rivers.This is a related but distinct problem from “pelagic plastic” — plastics in and on the open oceans.

  2. Very informative, Kip Hansen. Thank you. Timely, too as I have a friend who is convinced there is a continent sized garbage patch in the ocean. “Google earth it”, he says. I now understand why I could not find it. Because it isn’t there.

    • that’s so hilarious, the “Google It” response we get from people who are too clueless to realize that a debater must bring facts and evidence to the discussion rather than rely on a nebulous possibility that somebody else had posted it on the net for Google to catalogue

      • Rhee,
        What do you do when you need information? I go to a reference library or book. When I need a quick answer I can easily look at a few sites from google or another search engine, just like research. I take from your statement that you do not have much need for researching things. But in my experience I have found a multitude of correct, factual information from search engines on the net. You sound more the clueless one.

      • Rhee,
        Plus the fact that you don’t know the difference between google earth and google. One is a satellite view of the earth and the other is a search engine.

    • When I first heard about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” I read about plastic floating on the ocean surface “as far as the eye can see”, and plastic debris “piled up on beaches 5 feet high”. I immediately went to google to find pictures of both of these descriptions and ended up with only a closeup image of same sized plastic soda bottles which I learned was a picture taken at a recycling plant and not out in the ocean. Obviously scientists don’t take cameras with them on their outings. The other obvious conclusion is that all of that plastic “missing” was simply dissolved in the increasingly acidic ocean thanks to man’s dumping of excess CO2 into the oceans through large pipes plumbed directly to the ocean from every industry in the world. Google it!

  3. Manilla is filthy, there are very few public toilets, so people frequently defecate and urinate in the street. The security situation is atrocious, high risk of being kidnapped by Islamic militia or communist revolutionaries or plain criminals. Having said that, the Philippines after decades of stagnation are making a real effort to improve their lives, and for all the scum there are many decent people, such as the armed 7/11 store guard, who wandered over with his shotgun to rescue me from a panhandler who wasn’t taking no for an answer.

  4. “To understand if it’s a good thing or not, we have to understand the entire system”, says from the lady at Woods Hole.

    Would that the warmanistas would take that view.

    Also, in the photo of Manila Bay, most of the suff isn’t floating, it is on the beach – the guy standing near the bow of the boat doesn’t even have his knees wet. But it is The Guardian, what could you expect ….. .

    • Well ‘Dog, I think we should bill Tuvalu and the Maldives for allowing the rising seas to flush all their street garbage out into the great Pacific garbage patch.

      By my reckoning, it about matches how much tourist dollars they have lost by building airports where coconut palms used to flourish.


      PS A very nice essay. Amazing what you can find out at WUWT. Well some folks say Anthony just prints a load of garbage; apparently that’s true; and multicolored too.

      I learned a lot from this essay. I wouldn’t even sink an empty Dos Equis bottle or can in 10,000 feet of water in the Sea of Cortez. I would know it is there; and that bugs me.

  5. Great post. Ocean plastic is like guns and suvs: it’s not the plastic, the guns or big suv’s, it’s the litterer, the trigger finger and the driver that causes all the problems. It’s not the inanimate objects, it’s the soul-less beings.

    • You have that pegged correctly.

      There used to be a quite famous Florida Keys flats fishing guide; (I actually fished bonefish with him once), and all of his fellow guides knew exactly where all of his favorite stake out spots for bonefish, tarpon, and permit were, because he left a pile of empties at each of those spots, while sitting there waiting for cruising fish.

      Now we are talking about water that may be from six inches to six feet deep, and crystal clear, so those empty cans and bottles could be seen while cruising by. His fellow guides kept telling him to stop, but he just kept on dropping them over the side.

      No I’m not going to give you his name, and yes he was a damned good fishing guide.


    • Yes but take the gun away and you can do what you like with your finger, but you have no chance of killing anyone.

      • Are you saying a knife or rock could co what we have seen in the mass killings in the US recently? If you are you are, you are welcome to your opinion, but I don’t agree.

      • Since it is impossible to take the gun away, why don’t you come up with a new fantasy.
        Geeze, they can’t take away drugs even with draconian sentencing guidelines.

      • Simon, the biggest mass killings have been done with explosives. Which are already all but illegal for private citizens to own.
        Just because you are stupid, don’t expect terrorists to be.

      • Note to MarkW and Simon ==> Please take this off-topic discussion elsewhere. inappropriate here.



  6. The greenies are putting their priorities to pseudo science like CO2 and climate change when they really should be doing more to fight pollution and environmental degradation.

  7. Due to a prior commitment, I will be off the grid until 7 pm Eastern Time.

    If you have questions, address them to me and I’ll catch up with you then.

    My apologies.

    Kip Hansen

    • Eco freaks will zoom in on 1 m sq of “pollution” within 10,000,000 sq m of pristine wilderness and claim that the Earth is being destroyed by humanity. And the media keep falling for it. They both need to stop stealing our oxygen.

  8. I was on a sailboat from HI to CA two years ago and have seen plastic floating out in the middle of absolute nowhere. The area is so immense; however, that it tends to surprise you when you see it. As we got closer to the CA coast, the items floating in the water did seem to increase.

    I’ve seen much less garbage, but some nonetheless at Long Beach. The CA marine people do have a boat/barge that sucks a lot of this up. It comes down from the LA River so the US isn’t immune from garbage coming in from the streets.

  9. This is an issue that invariably comes up, whenever I’m winning an argument on Global Warming with one of my Greenie acquaintances (which is usually) – and so they use the dodge/ploy of switching topics. I’m often switched to particulate pollution and oil spills as well – sometimes ocean acidification.
    Of course, now that the propaganda has kicked up several notches, they’re all scared we’re gonna lose all our oxygen.

  10. Great essay. This basic finding also extends to the ‘methane bomb’ global warming permafrost myth. There are recent papers showing that if methane rich permafrost seasonally thaws, bacterial methanotrophs multiply and consume most of it. Just like Deepwater Horizon in the GoM, only different methanotrophs, and more slowly building up over melt seasons because of lower temperatures and metabolic rates.

    • Is methane well mixed?
      If so all the cars should clean the air via combustion.
      I’m reminded of a story that a friend told me how a manufacturing plant had trouble meeting its emissions levels. Oddly they would rise at night when the plant was idle, and go down during the day. They traced the excess hydrocarbon emissions to all the trees around the property, and in the morning rush our traffic would clean the air, at night the trees would pollute it. The governments response? Cut down the trees.

  11. Very interesting article indeed. We must, however, be careful what we wish for in terms of the physical, chemical and biological degradation of this stuff. The easier it is for organisms to digest, the more resulting compounds are going to accumulate in the oceanic food chain (where they clearly are not supposed to be).
    Whilst not strictly relevant, I am reminded of a study carried out on polar bears in Svalbard a few years back. The issue was that an unusually high number of polar bear attacks on humans had occurred in recent years, several of them fatal. Inevitably, the green blob cried “AGW: no sea ice, no seals = starvation = attacks on humans for food”. Ironically, however, some real scientists found exactly the reverse – the bears were super-aggressive precisely because they had been able to eat lots of seals at times when there was no shortage of sea ice. The culprit, they believed, was that pollutants (including PCBs) had been taken up the food chain and ultimately concentrated in seal blubber. The blubber was eaten by bears and, in some cases (mainly young males), the concentrations of the pollutants were sufficient to affect the animals’ natural hormone balances, thereby producing extra aggression.
    PCBs are, of course, increasingly less of a problem globally because, although long-lived, they were banned a generation ago. Nevertheless, I hope you can see my point.

    • The issue is what is the concentration level. Just about any chemical can be found just about anywhere, if you have a test sensitive enough.

  12. During WWII, many ships were sunk in the War of the Atlantic. The fuel oil from all those ships eventually formed tar balls floating all over the Atlantic. Because of wind and currents, Bermuda in particular, was plagued with tar fouled beaches and the general mess that tar makes. Around 1960, the tar balls were said to be as large as basketballs. By 1980, tar balls were the size of baseballs. Around 2000, the largest were the size of peas. Hotels still had pans of kerosene by the entrances for the tourists to clean up with. A recent visit revealed that there was no tar at all, and there has not been for quite a while.
    All in all, it was an excellent experiment in the natural degradation of hydrocarbons in the marine environment.
    As an aside, I took a ride over there on the cruise liner Norwegian Dawn. During cruise orientation, it was made abundantly clear that the Captain took a very dim view of anything going overboard. A passenger (who shall not be identified here) hopefully asked the crew if keelhauling miscreant litterbugs was acceptable.

    • TonyL I lived in Bermuda for three years (1989-92) and this is the first I heard of the tar ball/kerosene issue.

      However, while I was on aircraft carriers it was known that throwing trash overboard was a captains mast or more offense. Some things if properly weighted could at times go over. The fan tail at times really was ripe.

      • Lived there from 1969 – 1975. Fly fished a lot off Spanish Point and didn’t notice tar balls, but there were still kerosene pans out at the South Shore hotels.

      • I was on the USS Constellation 1980 to 1984. I was always amazed at the amount of trash going overboard off the aft sponsons. Mostly food trash from the mess after chow. Some of the bags floated and these sometimes provided the Marine Detachment the opportunity for target practice with M60s off the fantail. The bags sank better then.

    • TonyL December 17, 2015 at 8:31 am Edit

      During WWII, many ships were sunk in the War of the Atlantic. The fuel oil from all those ships eventually formed tar balls floating all over the Atlantic. Because of wind and currents, Bermuda in particular, was plagued with tar fouled beaches and the general mess that tar makes. Around 1960, the tar balls were said to be as large as basketballs. …

      Thanks, TonyL. The tar ball story is partially true (except the part about basketballs seems exaggerated), but the connection to WWII is not. From the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (emphasis mine):

      For anyone who lived in Bermuda during the 1960s and 1970s, seeing tar balls and oil on local beaches was a frequent, if not regular, occurrence. Floating tar balls are the result of petroleum in the marine environment, either from onshore and offshore oil production, processing and handling, shipping operations, or natural oil seeps. Because some tar balls float, they can be carried over large distances by ocean currents before they are deposited on the shoreline.

      In the article, “A Review of Observations of Floating Tar in the Sargasso Sea,” published recently in a special issue of Oceanography, Dr. Andrew Peters (Associate Scientist at BIOS) and Dr. Amy Siuda (Associate Professor, Sea Education Association) reviewed decades of scientific papers and data to construct a comprehensive history of tar balls in the Sargasso Sea. The review touches on some of the early research on tar balls in the North Atlantic, which was initiated and led by past president and former BIOS Life Trustee Dr. James Butler. Dr. Butler pioneered methods to monitor and investigate the impacts of pelagic tar on the ecology of the Sargasso Sea. His work on pelagic tar during the 1970s earned him international recognition in the field, and the techniques he used to document tar balls and analyze oil samples were integral in persuading oil companies to reduce the pollution.

      According to the study authors, the prevalence of tar balls during the 1960s and 1970s was due, primarily, to “the result of tank and ballast water flushing at sea, a prevailing practice in oil tanker operations at the time.” This was confirmed by early chemical analyses of tar balls that revealed they had a composition indicative of “crude-oil sludge, distinct from whole crude oil, suggesting a source from oil tanker operations.”

      However, by the early 1980s new international shipping conventions were enacted aimed at reducing the discharge of petroleum products from ships (i.e., via the release of water used to clean oil tanker cargo holds). As a result, fewer tar balls were showing up on Bermuda’s beaches. The study authors report that neuston net tows (used to sample zooplankton in the ocean but also good at collecting tar balls) conducted in from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s showed that tar balls had “decreased substantially over the whole area” of the Western North Atlantic Ocean, “although significant amounts were still present in the Sargasso Sea.”

      – See more at:

    • Tony,
      Back in the ’50s and ’60s the beach at Pawleys Island, S.C. would be covered with numerous small tar balls, maybe 1/2″ to 1″. My grandfather, born on the island, always said they were due to ships pumping their bilges offshore. I’m not sure what I would have done had I run across one the size of a basketball.

    • Tar balls…I used to call them tar blobs on the beaches of the Gulf of Oman at Muscat. They looked like black flat stones from a distance. Until I stepped on one and burnt my foot. Had a towel stained in oil there so gave it to the BP guys who reckoned they might track it to any of the tankers parked off shore, and there were a lot.

      Lost a 75HP Yamaha engine due to a plastic bag wrapping the water inlet about 50 yds off shore. Should not have been a surprise really. Likely better than smacking into a dead turtle, although could smell them first at some distance…slow down!

  13. Cheers, Mr. Hansen, for a very informative and nicely written article.
    And for pointing out, much as you have elsewhere and others have done on other subjects, just how politicized environmentalism has become.

  14. Wikipaedia says on their Pacific Trash Vortex page: “Despite its large area, it is of very low density (4 particles per cubic meter), therefore not visible from satellite photography, nor even necessarily to casual boaters or divers in the area”.

    Yeah but trust us – it exists.

    They also quote a source claiming it is “twice the size of the continental United States” (although they admit the estimate is conjectural).

    Even so – mean ol’ United States! Bad – bad!

  15. Norway receive plastic from the sea due to westerly currents and wind. All types. A large part ropes and nets from the fishing industry. At least that is my impression walking on the local beach. I think it should be quantifyable.

    • Reply to Knutsen ==> The fishing industry is responsible for a lot of the most damaging types of plastic pollution in lost fishing gear — nets, buoys, floats, and mono-filaments.

      Of course, like all things at sea, these floating tangles of plastic nets and floats become miniature floating reefs supporting diverse life in what would otherwise be a desert. Overall, I would like to see cheap electronic trackers placed on/in all net buoys — they are pretty inexpensive now — which would help in their recovery.

  16. Interesting and informative, thanks Mr. Hansen.
    This is sort of thing that Greens need to campaign more vigorously about.
    However, there might be some use to all that rubbish. Many items origins could be easily traced, often with dates included (e.g. use by date) giving opportunity to oceanographers to get better understanding of the ocean currents.

  17. Thanks Kip. Let’s not allow the fanatic greens co-opt the term environmentalist. Understanding the parameters of a problem is pre-requisite to addressing it. When problems are exaggerated and/or causes mis-identified, the resulting response is often inappropriate or even more harmful than the problem.

  18. Most “Plastics” (more correctly called “resins”) break down spontaneously in direct sunlight. If designed for use in direct sunlight, expensive ingredients must be added to minimize this effect. This effect is accelerated by the mildly caustic and very mechanically active ocean water. So, if it floats, it doesn’t last for long…

    • Thanks, I was going to mention that. We used UV to selectively break down thin films of poly-methyl-methyl-acrylate to define circuitry for chips thirty+ years ago.

  19. National Geographic: “Ocean Garbage Patch Not Growing—Where’s “Missing” Plastic?”

    I’m pretty sure it is hiding out together with the missing heat. Find one, you found the other.

    • Eureka! missing heat has melted the plastics and oxidized them into CO2! ;-{}

      But actually, warmer SSTs would logically speed up the bacterial processes and hasten the natural digestion process.

  20. Bacteria can eat anything, including phthalates.

    There probably isn’t an organic molecule, no matter how otherwise toxic, that bacteria can’t use as a carbon source. PCBs for example.

    • Yes, I use bacteria from a commercial source (Flush-it) to maintain my septic tank, pond and manure composting pile with great results.
      Here’s the list of what they eat:
      digest GREASE, FATS, OILS (cooking oil, lard, butter, fatty acids from bar soaps)
      digest PROTEINS (meat, fish, other foods)
      digest CARBOHYDRATES (starches, sugars, bread, other foods)
      digest CELLULOSE (paper, wood fibers, cotton, vegetable fiber)
      digest DETERGENTS (laundry detergent, dishwashing detergent, shampoos, detergent bar soaps)
      digest PHENOLICS (deodorant soaps, disinfectants such as Lysol, etc.)
      digest HYDROCARBONS (solvents in all purpose cleaners, cosmetics, shampoos)
      digest SULFUR COMPOUNDS (odor causing compounds)

    • Pat Frank,

      Indeed the “toxic” phthalates are used for over 60 years in medical equipment, because they have a very low toxicity: an adult can drink a liter without (much) harm. but don’t try it: it is an oily substance smearing the intestines for days… If released in nature, normal breakdown is a matter of days, only in anaerobic circumstances (like in silt) they can built up, but they don’t do that in the food chain…

      The only reason for its ban (in Europa) is the smear campaign by Greenpeace, because phthalates are mainly used in soft PVC…

    • Reply to Willis Eschenbach => Thank you, sir. We focus on different aspects of the propaganda about ocean plastic. In your piece, you show how the Guardian and other throw around “really big” numbers — as if they proved something. And, of course, you are absolutely right — not only are the numbers hyped — but they are an absurd misrepresentation of reality — as in my bit on counting.

      Plastic in the ocean is an issue in highlighting the improvements necessary in many countries in the proper disposal of municipal trash.

      In the end, “Nature abides”.

  21. Thanks for sharing this good information.

    One wonders how the influx of biodegradable plastics has impacted things. I can attest that several items I possess have become particularly nuisanced with stickiness and will get tossed out well before their time due to biodegradable plastics.

    Has anyone else had a hand held drill grip, flashlight, kids toy, or even an external DVD burner case turn into a sticky mess over a few years as opposed to the 10+ year typical life span they usually would have if they didn’t decompose? Is that biodegradable stuff actually helping the environment, or accelerating the associated products into a landfill ahead of their intended schedule?

    • I owned a high end automobile that was manufactured in Germany. It came equipped with a biodegradable engine wiring harness, according to some of the owners that had posted this on the web. A lot of mystery problems disappeared when I replaced the engine wiring harne$$. I hope these wire insulation materials have not found their way into aircraft or other critical applications.

      • I’m not sure if my truck has a biodegradable wiring harness, but it sure tastes good to the local squirrels. After replacing most of it, it’s now protected by hardware cloth and chicken wire.

      • (Note: “Buster Brown” is the latest fake screen name for ‘David Socrates’, ‘Brian G Valentine’, ‘Joel D. Jackson’, ‘beckleybud’, ‘Edward Richardson’, ‘H Grouse’, and about twenty others. The same person is also an identity thief who has stolen legitimate commenters’ names. Therefore, all the time and effort he spent on writing 300 comments under the fake “BusterBrown” name, many of them quite long, are wasted because I am deleting them wholesale. ~mod.)

      • Rabbits ate my Toyota Camry’s main wiring harness when it was parked for a month as I was trying to sell it. My wife did some research on a mechanics forum and one “expert” made a brilliant comment. He said a rabbit couldn’t be the culprit since rabbits are vegitarians. :) Is copper wiring a vegetable?

      • I too once owned a high end German auto (in Australia) and rodents ate some similar components … it didn’t take them long.

    • Reply to ossqss ==> Some of the “stickiness” of plastic grips, toys, etc comes from the constant contact with OILS — body oils, gasoline, diesel (a particular problem on my boat with tool grips and sneaker soles).

      Washing the grips off with soft soap and plain water can slow down this annoying problem.

  22. Reblogged this on Patti Kellar and commented:
    One of the wisest things I have read today:
    Doug Allen December 17, 2015 at 9:17 am
    Thanks Kip. Let’s not allow the fanatic greens co-opt the term environmentalist. Understanding the parameters of a problem is pre-requisite to addressing it. When problems are exaggerated and/or causes mis-identified, the resulting response is often inappropriate or even more harmful than the problem.

  23. If the oceans actually were warming, wouldn’t warmer water result in the plastic breaking down even more quickly?

    • Reply to MarkW ==> I doubt that a degree or two C has much of an effect on the breakdown rate of plastics. UV is the greatest agent, along with the physical action of chruning and agitating ocean waves. It doesn’t take very long to break plastic jugs and buckets and the like down into those 15 mm or smaller sizes.

  24. As one who has done a fair amount of oceanic voyaging under sail, I cannot tell you how refreshing (and unusual) it is to read the thoughts of someone who actually knows something about the ocean.

    • Reply to John W. Garret ==> Thank you, John. I did a decade as a junior officer in the merchants as a young man — met my then-future-wife aboard my first overseas posting in Lisbon, Portugal. We raised our family ashore, and have now spent the last dozen years at sea again. I picked up a Captain’s License (six-pack) along the way.

    • Reply to ristoi ==> The current hypothesis is that “some” of it must sink to the bottom, though when they take mud cores, they can’t find it there so far. Once they found evidence that microbes were actually eating the plastic, they were less concerned about that aspect.

      Some floating plastic does get carried downward in the water column as it gets colonized by all the lovely things that live on the surfaces of anything floating in the water — barnacles, sea worms, bits of coral, algae, hard-shelled bivalves of all types.

  25. On my recent getaway to St. Augustine I was the only visible trash on the beach.

    Excellent post. Agree with your wife that the longer explanation is usually the better one.

  26. My suspicion has been that most of the molecular breakdown products of plastic are harmless, but an environmentalist and activist friend recently asserted that molecules from plastics are increasingly found in the flesh of living organisms and that these molecules are toxic in some sense. I’ll admit to some skepticism, since the formula for the very popular polyethylene, for example, doesn’t suggest that it could do any harm. Of course, specialty and dyed forms of plastic are in use, so there is always the possibility of at least some harm.

    • Reply to James Strom ==> Your friends assert a questionable proposition == the “molecules from plastics” are found. Micro-plastics are found in the digestive tracks of some fishes, mention in the essay. As microbes digest the itty-bitty bits of plastic (the ones that disappear) we must assume that everything in that plastic gets converted to something, or remains undigested.

      There is no definitive study showing any harm has come to anything — or that the incredibly small concentrations of chemicals-from-plastics has or could harm anything.

      As with all questions of chemical pollutants, there is “the poison is in the dose” factor.

  27. Kip,

    Thank you for publishing this great article. I have a half-finished draft about this (not as good as yours), stopped when I attempted to verify what is often considered the first actual sighting of the great pacific garbage dump. This is Charles Moore’s account in Nov 2003 Natural History.

    “Day after day, Alguita was the only vehicle on a highway without landmarks, stretching from horizon to horizon. Yet as I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic.

    “It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments. Months later, after I discussed what I had seen with the oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, perhaps the world’s leading expert on flotsam, he began referring to the area as the “eastern garbage patch.” But “patch” doesn’t begin to convey the reality. Ebbesmeyer has estimated that the area, nearly covered with floating plastic debris, is roughly the size of Texas.”

    This reads like the sighting of a UFO — awesome, but why didn’t he take a photo? If it is so visible, where are the photographs of it?

    As you explain, actual scientists say the garbage is small — much of it barely visible to the naked eye — so that the Great Pacific Garbage Patches look like your photo of blue sea.

    Could the excitement about the “Patches” result from an urban legend created by Moore? Would this have gotten traction if journalists and eco-warriors had only the descriptions of scientists about yet another scary but unseen phenomenon?

    • Reply to Editor of the Fabius Maximus website ==> I would never call a man a liar outright….but no one else, not even hard-core plastics-in-the-ocean scientists and advocates, report seeing any such thing. Dr. Jenna Jambeck, probably the worlds most respected authority on oceanic plastic, simply says that it ain’t so.

      So, he may have seen it, but no one else has before or since.

  28. I think those graphs and the “size” of the problem are a good index to the overboard hysteria of the CO2 control knobs. I have remarked before that the projected horror shows awaiting us by the end of Century are, because of psychology, greatly over exaggerated simply because that’s what an alarmist does. During the controversy over the past decade about feedbacks and climate sensitivity (ECS, TCS), I actually speculated using such an ‘index’ that the true figure would prove to be about a third of the alarmist one. First, no alarmist is going to underestimate, even if the sentence “it’s worse than previously thought” is their most go to phrase. When I see it, I know it is much less concerning than is thought. It is a bit like a big engineering ‘safety’ factor when a bridge or some other ‘can’t fail’ structure is being designed.

    I had a client interested in alluvial gold and diamonds in West Africa who put together “prospectuses” for raising money. He ;always underestimated the cost of projects and overestimated the returns by multiples. I guess one could call it an enthusiasm factor. As the century unfolds (and it is 1/6th gone now) we will see the danger limit for cataclysmic warming reduced to +1C. They are already working on 1.5C above that of the Little Ice Age, and we are over half way at that so they are looking at the straight line rate for crawling out of the LIA – another 0.7C as bordering on catastrophic. The CAGW death throes I guess will extend to the next US election.

    • @Bruce Cobb … no discussion of “ocean plastic” is complete without getting Carlin’s input on the subject.

  29. Another fine article here. Thanks.
    Laysan Albatross are pretty efficient at coughing up pellets, or boluses, since they routinely consume squid and other animals that have bits not digested. Squid beaks are not digestible, along with some bones, etc and they are good at coughing up plastic. Have seen pic’s of boluses containing many squid beaks and those things are pretty big. I’m not saying plastics don’t/can’t cause them potential problems, esp for chicks, but coughing up non-digestible bits are part of their daily biological process.

    • Reply to CR Carlson ==> Thanks for the detail on albatross’s boluses.

      So far, I have seen no reports that adult albatrosses have a problem with ingested plastics — only those dozen or so chick skeletons (oh, there may be more, but only 12 or so different images appear in all the literature on it.)

  30. I may be the odd man out on this one. I think plastic refuse is probably a problem.

    I don’t know if it is a problem – BUT: in the 60’s and 70’s I spent a lot of time on the ocean and I don’t remember a single day on the sea when I didn’t see human garbage floating on the ocean. Now, you can say that seeing garbage a couple of times a day on an Atlantic crossing is not a large density. That is true. Nevertheless it shouldn’t be there. Back in those days, if you happened to be on deck with your paramour at 3 in the morning, you would see the crew dumping the days refuse of the aft of the ship. Standard practice back then – and it wasn’t just “fish food” kitchen organics they were dumping.

    But that kind of thing is nothing compared to harbours and canals in South East Asia in the days that I was still working and traveling overseas. It looked like you could walk across some of those canals. The harbours in the Middle East weren’t much better and you still could see detris floating down the Seine and the Danube the last time I was there (admittedly over 10 years ago).

    Walking the west coast beaches in British Columbia, there are always bits of interesting human detris, frequently well reformed and eroded into interesting new shapes.

    Maybe it isn’t a problem, but I was constantly amazed by the debris in the ocean.

    Now, I am not a rabid environmentalist but I do believe in carry in and carry out for the most part. (Those parks that say you need to bring out what leaves your body have gone over the line as I don’t see them running around picking up deer and cougar droppings.) On the other hand, it annoys me greatly when I find drink containers abandoned miles from the nearest road. I do stop and carry them out but it is upsetting that the original owner didn’t respect the land enough to carry them out themselves.

    It has gotten better as people have become more aware of their impact on their surroundings. Yet on a trip to Alaska 4 years ago, I still saw flotsam every day. Maybe it’s just me, but I find that annoying and an indication of simple laziness or uncaring on the part of some people. Sort of like sh-tting on your own front lawn. Even most dogs know better than that.

    Of course, who am I too talk, I kick horse cookies out of the way almost every day when I am out in my pastures. Different strokes for different folks.

    (I used to work in water and sewerage – human ingenuity applied to disposal of unwanted material is amazing – everything from cut up boards to bricks to footballs to whole rolled up mattresses to gosh knows what kind of nasty black chemicals go down the drain. Some plant operators post their “most” interesting items pulled off the trash screens on a bulletin board at the screening plant. Lots of unclaimed false teeth. We have work to do.)

    Just for fun:

    • I think we’re all pretty much on the same page as far as deliberate or unthinking carelessness regarding litter, and pollution. It’s disgusting, and unsightly. But this is about what winds up in the oceans, much of it due to storms, and in a lot of cases, due to lack of good, efficient ways of handling trash, which is usually because of poverty.

      • POVERTY – Agree Bruce Cobb. Many places that were/are strewn with litter is because there is no collection system. Poverty is the real issue, not climate. Thanks.

    • Reply to Wayne Delbeke ==> You are right about the handling of trash and garbage at sea in the 60s and 70s (and before). In the open ocean, ships of all kinds simply chucked stuff overboard — my ship did — usually in gunny sacks weighted to sink. Garbage (organic kitchen waste) was dumped into the water. The heads flushed directly overboard instead of into the holding tanks — the holding tanks were flushed with sea water once we were out far enough.

      Travelling in the normal sea lanes in those days, one would see the trash from the boat ahead of you.

      Now days, not so much. Being caught dumping is serious. Boats and ships are required to post signs explicitly stating that it is now illegal to dump plastic into the seas anywhere.

    • Teenagers are the worst. If I see them throwing rubbish on the street or, worse, just dropping it wherever they find it, I always go over and berate them. It only has a 40% or lower success rate of getting them to pick it up, but eventually the message will sink in.

      And don’t get me started on vandalism and graffiti…why despoil where you live?

  31. “There is no longer any country or municipality known to be disposing of municipal trash and garbage at sea today.”

    I’m sorry, but this is simply not true. Ever since China stopped taking all of our recycling (our largest export), barges have been simply dumping it into the Pacific mid voyage before turning back.

    The article above is well cited and of course I’m always skeptical of anything.

    • Reply to Dog ==> The article to which you link is from May 08, 2013….and says nothing whatever about any ships jettisoning plastic or that ” barges have been simply dumping it into the Pacific mid voyage before turning back.” There is no mention of any such thing at all in that piece.

      Perhaps you gave the wrong link? I would be very interested if you can provide a reliable source for that accusation.

  32. Lots of bio-polymers, like, err… wood, are also very resistant to bio-degradation. That’s how soil (and coal and oil) comes to exist.

    Satan, give me strength.

  33. Following the Southern Equitorial current between Galapagos and The Marquesas we did see some trash caught in the current, but thought it was commercial shipping waste.

  34. If any of this were true.. why aren’t they diverting some solar or wind turbine funds to clean it up.?

    I bet the funds spent on the Paris-ite gathering would have gone a long way toward this…

    But … not happening… because there is very little money to be made.

  35. Kip, you said:

    The largest piece of floating debris we ever saw on the open ocean was a full-sized home refrigerator.

    We may have you beat. When sailing off the coast of Honduras a few years back, after some heavy inland flooding, we sailed through a sea of trash with an occupied (we think) wooden casket floating in the middle of it. It had probably washed down a near by river.

    Earlier in that same trip, after leaving Great Inagua on the way to the Windward Passage, we sailed for over an hour through a dense collection of very visible plastic trash. There had to be at least one bottle, cup, etc. about every 6 meters or so. We couldn’t tell if the currents had collected it from the nearby islands or whether some cruise ship had decided to dump several tons of garbage in that particular spot. But, it was all to new to have been broken up by the sun and waves, and still floating on or near the surface.

    • Reply to Joe Crawford ==> The DR can flush huge amounts of all kinds of trash into the sea following heavy rainfalls from hurricanes and tropical storms — Haiti too. On the northern shore of Hispaniola, if these spurts of trash get out into the Gulf Stream (not blown back onshore), they would be found where you describe.

      I’ve sailed through that very area many times, but haven’t even seen the phenomena you describe.

      I like the casket story — was the occupant dead or alive?

    • From what I’ve seen here in Honduras/Guatemala area, it was most likely a wayward canoe. Many of they look like caskets.

      • Scott,
        Guess I’ve never seen a cayuca shaped like one of the wooden coffins in the old west movies. It looked to be about. 5-1/2′ to 6′ long, 1-1/2′ deep and broad at the shoulders… complete with flat wooden top.

    • Reply to DD More ==> :-) The best floats are Italian glass (very rare these days) and metal globes with a ring at the top, some with intricate 3D designs, from Spain and Portugal.

      • Definition of HARDILY ==> hardily adv
        1. in a hardy manner; toughly or boldly
        Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003

    • Reply to RoHa ==> 30 years ago, that would have been true…but after 40 some years, she gets what she wants. :-)

  36. Thanks Kip and others – interesting and informative.

    1.: The red plastic part thought to look like those things holding fermented beverage “six-packs” together does appear to be something of that sort, except the openings are not round. Thus, I’d rule out the obvious culprit.

    2.: A nearby small town is being asked by a local group to ban “single-use” grocery sacks made of plastics. This seems to be mostly that they are unsightly and part of the “carbon pollution” problem. Such groups, locally and elsewhere, do mention the plastic in the ocean issue in their letters and comments. The people in the group are global warming alarmist and I am not sympathetic to most of the things they want. However, I’ve never been fond of the plastic carry-out grocery sacks, preferring the brown paper ones with handles.

    • @ John F. @ 3.49 pm: Some time ago the BBC had an article that firmly put plastic ahead of brown bags.. The study revealed that brown paper bags costs ~ 30 times more to produce compared to plastic. That study also dealt with the “composting” of both and even there (treated the same way) plastics were ahead of brown paper bags, according to the study the paper had been treated with chemicals to prevent breakdown in case of getting wet. I’ll try to find that study but being over two years old it may take some time to find, if I do find it I will post it asap. It caught my eye then because it was so against the BBC’s stand on the environment.( anti oil/plastics). We use plastic bags multiple times, either to use them for the next shopping trip or as” kitchen catchers”, for wet garbage, or to place our recyclables into.

  37. A most interesting article. You are likely correct in that creatures learn quickly what is edible and what is not.

    Here in Australia we introduce the cane toad to eat the cane beetle (which it didn’t). when they were introduced our local snakes were eating the cane toads and dying from the poison. Within a decade, the snakes no longer eat the toads, no more deaths.

    I also note that birds often pick insects off the road that are dead or injured from passing vehicles. I remember when I was young that it wasn’t uncommon to see birds get hit by vehicles. Now, you see a young bird dead by the side of the road vary rarely.

    Have you noticed that flys now recognise a can of fly spray? They’ll fly around your face for 5 minutes but as soon as you grab a can of fly spray, they disappear instantly.

  38. I have often wondered about this. We hear constantly about this in alarmist media. When looking for debris in the oceans in recent airline crashes, satellites have been trained to look over vast areas of ocean and found objects as small as 5 meters in length. If there was a patch the size of Texas in the ocean, we’d be able to see it.

  39. I walk our local beach (Waimairi, Christchurch, New Zealand) daily and have done for 20 years. So I’ve clocked up around 8,000 beach trawls. This section of beach is a ‘collector’ – a large stormwater drain, and almost equidistant from the Waimak river to the north, and the Estuary in the south. As I walk with dogs, I always have a pocket full of dog poop bags at the ready. I ask myself at each object – does this Belong here? – and pick up most of the NO’s. I never come away from the beach with an empty bag from each 1km walk, but there is surprisingly little plastic refuse, which I characterise as follows:

    1/3 is flotsam – mainly off commercial fishing boats. Pipe, rope ends, pieces of net (small), tangles of small gauge fishing line, some with hooks. Gloves. Some shoes/boots on rare occasions. Rebar chairs (a lot of earthquake-torn concrete is dumped free in Lyttelton Harbour reclamations, and the chairs work loose and float on up here.)
    1/3 floats down stormwater drains out of Christchurch City proper. Small stuff – bottle caps, the toys out of fast food boxes, balloons from parties, the rings from childproof containers. All small stuff, as it has to fit down street grates to make it into the drains.
    1/3 is careless beachgoers – wrappers, bottles, caps, bags, clothing, shoes, jandals, t-shirts, cell phone cords and covers, fireworks around Nov 5, the usual suspects.

    No big deal, and NZ is a nice environment. But an awful lot of the plastic objects, after quite short journeys, are sub-pea-size, so the article is interesting…..

  40. Reply to Patrick MJD ==> Certainly — but it is not a mystery, you know. There have been many voyages in part speficially focused on this issue, traversing the very areas of concern.

    What they found is in the Cózar et. al paper linked in the essay.

    Read the NOAA page linked as well.

  41. I recall a plankton tow in 1970 or 1971 when a ~3mm diameter tar ball was collected. Attached was an even smaller barnacle (Lepas sp. (?)). Absent the collection, this symbiotic relationship would have continued until the barnacle grew heavier and both sunk into the depths.

    • Reply to Neil Jordan ==> Many of the pelagic plastic studies find that the floating bits of plastic are colonized by various barnacles, algae, marine worms and various other small bivalves. These bits are suspended in the water column — they sink until they reach a point where their specific gravity equals that of the water around them.

  42. You say:
    ‘Have a little more faith in “Nature” – the natural system finds a way to use most everything – in the case of oceanic plastics, as homes and food.’

    It applies to most phenomenon of our world including climate change. Humans seem to under estimate power of Nature.

  43. It appears that some bacteria eat oil and excrete asphalt – and the asphalt sinks. If they eat oil and excrete asphalt, likely they eat plastic and excrete asphalt. As a general rule, for any substance that can yield energy by being oxidized, there is a bacterium that eats it.

    But since bacteria lack teeth, they rely on natural processes to grind potential foodstuffs into forms that have a high surface area to volume ratio.

    • Reply to jamesd127 ==> See the images in the essay and in the Cózar paper — they appear to dissolve it by excreting something then ingesting the solution….”melting into the surface”….

  44. Walking on a local beach yesterday (Long Beach WA) and still finding plastic bottles with Japanese writing on them, most likely from the tsunami. Of course, it could have been Chinese, those characters all look alike to my western trained eyes..


  45. Remember the “Medical Waste” scare? When was that the ’80s? Well anyway I remember the media almost daily reporting that medical waste was washing up on the beaches as if it were a new phenomenon. The local reporters here in Milwaukee jumped on the band wagon and beach combed Lake Michigan shores in the local parks and breathlessly reported on the ten o’clock news that they found some band-aids and an aspirin bottle. Since then the medical waste problem has gone unreported.

    • Reply to Steve Case ==> Medical waste washed ashore on Long Island and the Jersey shore regularly — because NY City was dumping barges of municipal trash, including medical waste from the NY City hospitals, offshore.

      In 1992, the practice of dumping trash at sea was discontinued.

  46. Hey.
    Bahamas guy here. We see lots of crap on the windward side, especially after storms. Lots of poly rope and those little freakin’ water bags the DR fishermen drink from and toss.
    Nasty? yes. Unpleasant? yes Unnecessary? yes!
    So, some re-education of the DR fishermen, (The poly is expensive. No one dumps it willingly). end of problem. Also volunteers to clean up beaches.
    Lots of $$$ to be made in hectoring videos telling us how GUILTY we are.
    Maybe we could just be grown ups and spend some time, money, and effort and clean up the relatively tiny bits of crap we leave behind.

  47. “Island of garbage that you can walk across” is a bit of a myth put around by one guy Charles Moore in his Ted Talk. My guess it is another case of a passionate Green bigging it up to make people take notice. I see Bishop-Hill commenters called it out back in 2011 ..Among other things they point to where the Telegraph story about it being exaggerated.

    My own notes from February 2015 : About the Naked Scientists radio show

    Charles Moore gave an excellent first hand account of how he discovered the phenomenon of the giant plastic waste dump in the Pacific Doldrums . including some pockets so dense he claims he could walk across them like islands
    – So excellent that I can’t find any video or any real stills of islands of plastic that you can walk across ..that is a bit strange.
    – He also said a strange thing ..”man it’s a real problem ..more animals die from this every year than die from climate change”
    ..Wow well where does he gets stats for animals that die from climate change ?

    The Wikipedia page does only talk about the patch been pretty low density and small particles

    The patch is not easily visible, because it consists of very small pieces that are almost invisible to the naked eye.[7] Most of its contents are suspended beneath the surface of the ocean,[8] and the relatively low density of the plastic debris is, according to one scientific study, 5.1 kilograms per square kilometer of ocean area

  48. Interesting article, but I’ve seen one hell of a lot of plastic floating around southeast asia. I’ve been to remote islands in the South China sea where the beaches were covered. When I was in Vietnam, they cleared the plastic off the resort beaches with a bulldozer. Yuck.

    • Reply to Rich Anderson ==> Read Jambeck — Southeast Asia is a major contributor to the problem. It is a result of lack of development — lack of proper municipal trash collection and disposal. The Dominican Republic and Haiti in the Caribbean but not the USVI or Puerto Rico, for example, which are more developed.

  49. I knew the pacific garbage patch was rubbish when all the alarmists failed to get a photo of it.

    I’ve always been very skeptical of descriptions of plastics ‘not biodegrading’. Anyone who has left plastic furniture out in the weather for a few seasons knows what I’m taking about.

    In terms of beach trash, the most polluted beach I have ever seen was along the beaches of Camp Pembleton just north of San Diego. There is a state park popular with surfers there. In a decent walk I decided to collect just one type of trash – eye wear. After a decent walk I had about 20 various types of eyeglasses, sunglasses and even those ski-goggle masks the marines wear. The beach was also littered with rubber tread pieces from the amphibious vehicles the marines use for landing training. Many public beaches in California are in terrible shape and I don’t understand why they aren’t cared for better, both by the locals voluntarily and the local authorities. On my local beach it is spotlessly clean despite looking out onto a major shipping lane. Lots of caretaking locals means the government only has to step in when something major washes up, like a big dead animal, unattended boat or a large buoy.

    • Reply to Brc ==> Organizing beach cleanups is a worthwhile activity — it helps both the beaches and the participants. Local governments (county, city, state) will help by picking up the collected trash from designated locations, and may even donated the large heavy-duty trash bags — NY State does this for highway cleanup as well.

    • Reply to Navy Bob ==> I’m afraid Moore has succumbed to the temptation to produce propaganda instead of educational materials.

      See his “About Us” page — you see students investigating the contents of a small white tray — probably the contents of a sieve troll in the Patch. Notice that they are picking out the very small bits of plastic feature in the essay above.

      Moore has one image of a lost fishing net with football=-shaped black floats that looks to have been floating around for quite some time, and has become a productive floating reef.

      Not a single image on their Education – Photos page of anything like the descriptions he gives of garbage patches — because there simply aren’t any.

  50. My Take Home Message is I’m glad I stopped reading the Guardian.

    Even though their caption shows the picture had nothing to do with the alleged “Pacific garbage patch the size of Texas”, it is still misleading if not blatantly dishonest.

    Environmentalism is good when practiced sanely and honestly. Environmentalism today is like what happened to Christianity during the crusades.

  51. not all plastic floats. nylon for example sinks. other plastic such as poly will sink once barnacles start growing on them. it doesn’t take long. a few weeks in the tropics.

    also, plastic burns. it is made of hydrocarbons. as such it is an energy source. it is inevitable that life will evolve to eat plastic to get access to this energy. We already see this with bacteria that eat diesel and clog filters.

  52. We’ve been sailing around the world for the last 9 years.
    Far and away the worst areas of the world for plastic pollution have been in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. Secondarily, the East Coast of South America. The Caribbean and the overall Pacific – not as bad.
    The Great Barrier reef has some bad areas but is located fairly close to SE Asia.

    The largest case study we saw was on the atoll of Salomon in the northern group of the Chagos Archipelago.
    This is most noted for the island of Diego Garcia (US Military base) which we were approximately 80 miles north of. The outer reef of Salomon looked like a used “flip flop” factory with every conceivable type of plastic imaginable in large amounts. Note: India is due north of Chagos about 1500 miles.

    This article was quite enlightening and actually gives me some hope. The trash is certainly more of an eye sore than anything else, but as the article notes can be a problem to marine birds and ocean life.

    Nowhere (btw), have we seen any “mid ocean” floating islands of rubbish. The worst nation we personally witnessed for marine rubbish (far and away) was Indonesia. You couldn’t go 150 meters without seeing significant (usually plastic) rubbish floating everywhere.

    The more “developing” (read that as 3rd world), the nation, the worse their shores were cluttered with plastic rubbish.

  53. Great article; informative for all my friends who think earth is doomed but do nothing to help the situations they think only carping can fix.

  54. Reblogged this on Climate Change Sanity and commented:
    I have always taken for a loss when I read postings that claim plastic garbage patches the size of Texas are floating in some ocean. I am reblogging Kip Hansen’s posting that disputes these claims. He also notes that microbes are consuming much of the plastic. His posting is long but well worth reading.

  55. “Plastics contain toxins such as phthalates, and also absorb additional toxic chemicals such as persistent organic pollutants from the ocean”

    1) The amount of plastic per volume of sea water is miniscule.
    2) The amount of these chemicals in any volume of plastic is small.
    (What’s the result of small multiplied by miniscule?)
    3) Complex chemicals generally break down quickly thanks to both sunlight and biological actions.

  56. Kip Hansen,

    Thank you, you’ve cleaned up another patch of my polluted imagination quite nicely, and chipped away at what I’ll call “pale blue dot syndrome”, I think many are suffering from of late.

  57. I have been through the Pacific gyre three times. On all three occasions I have seen plastic bottles, cans, floats, etc. In 2012 my crew spotted a 15″ x 1″ by 1″ piece of concrete and styrofoam dock. Two boats with whom we were travelling spotted overturned hulls. The 2012 debris was most likely from the tsunami.

    I have seen tangles of fishing net. Once in the South Atlantic last fall. Twice in the Pacific. In 2000, one small piece of fishing net took out our transmission.

    There is plastic junk out there, bit the photos of islands of garbage are of rare events. Most of the plastic is small pieces just below the surface.

  58. Addendum to above.

    In 2000 we kept seeing 1 foot square pieces of plastic about every 100 yards for about 2 days. I was “convinced” that a boat ahead was throwing them in the water.

      • Kip,
        Since you mentioned ’em. I never verified the numbers but when when we were crossing from Jamaica to Honduras in the mid ’90s we were told that ships had ‘lost’ over 200 shipping containers in the Caribbean the previous year. That (supposedly) it only costs them a couple of hundred dollars each (insurance deductible?), and if the weather got too rough, they would just cut a few loose to balance the ship.

        Friends we had sailed with while in the Bahamas ran into one in the middle of the night in the Anegada Passage. It almost stopped their 36 footer, threw her out of the boat breaking her safety tether, and tore a ‘Titanic’ style gash down one side of the boat. Luckily, he got the BVI Coast Guard on the radio and kept the boat floating long enough for them to arrive on scene. It took them another 12 hours to locate her in the water. Everyone except the boat came out of it OK.

        I find it interesting that dumping a shipping container only costs a couple of hundred dollars where cruise ships can be fined several thousand to several hundred thousand for dumping an equivalent amount of plastic refuse. Something’s wrong with that!

  59. I remember seeing at least one article pointing out that after the Exxon Valdez spill, areas that were not cleaned with detergent recovered faster than those that were – precisely because the detergent removed the bacteria along with the oil.

  60. The ocean degradation of plastic does create nano-sized particles. Some research has been done trying to extrapolate effect on living cells. There is considerable more that has been published, including more recently, if anyone interested.

    “… photo-oxidation functionalizes the surface of plastics to render them with different charge polarities …adsorption of (20 nm) nanosized plastic (polystyrene) … favor positively charged over negatively charged plastic beads … to cellulose … of … Chlorella and Scenedesmus … hindered algal photosynthesis, possibly through the physical blockage of light and air flow by the nanoparticles ….” Edited quote from (2010) “Physical Adsorption of Charged Plastic Nanoparticles Affects Algal Photosynthesis”; J. Phys. Chem. C, 114, by Bhattacharya, Clemson U. Laboratory of Single-Molecule Biophysics & Polymer Physics & Center for Optical Materials Science & Engineering Technologies

    (2013) “Polystyrene Nanoparticles Perturb Lipid Membranes”, J. Phys. Chem. Lett., 2014, Rossi Université Paris Diderot, Sorbonne suggests “… nanoparticles permeate … lipid membranes … alter … structure … reduce molecular diffusion … affects … organization by stabilizing raft-like domains ….”

    (2014) “Nanoplastic Affects Growth of S. obliquus and Reproduction of D. magna” , Environ. Sci. Technol., 48 (20) conclude ” … reduced population growth & reduced chlorophyll concentrations … Daphnia … reduced body size & … alterations in reproduction … body size of neonates were lower … number of neonate malformations … rose … effects … observed between 0.22 and 103 mg nano-PS/L. Malformations … from 30 mg of nano-PS/L onward….”

    • Reply to gringojay ==> This research generally is concerned with the nano-plastics that are used in cleaning agents — manufactured for that purpose. They are very small.

      What Cózar et al. found was that as the ocean breaks down pelagic plastics, they don’t end up as ka-gillions of nano-particles, but actually disappear altogether — eaten up by bacteria and other micro-critters.

      It is not entirely clear yet what happens when the manufactured particles are smaller than microbes….

      The is concern that nano-plastics will or might cause harm, it has been shown tpo maybe happen in the lab, but if Cózar et al. is correct, such tiny particles are probably being eaten in the natural environment.

      • (2015) “Marine Anthropogenic Litter” edited by Bergmann, Gutow & Klages full 456 page free text is available on-line as a pdf. My edited quotes follow:

        “… microparticles … (European Union/USA adopted 5-mm upper bound for categorization of microplastics within the Marine Strategy Framework Directive) … = …primary’ microplastics, produced either for indirect use as precursors (nurdles or virgin resin pellets) for the production of polymer consumer products … in cosmetics/ scrubs/abrasives & (ii) ‘secondary’ microplastics … from … breakdown of larger plastic … normally float at the sea surface …(as) … less dense than sea-water … buoyancy & specific gravity … may change … results in … distribution across … sea surface/deeper water column/seabed/beaches/sea ice … sediments …of the deep sea … Arctic sea ice … (at)… 2 orders of magnitude higher than … contaminated surface waters … encounters … by marine species = ~ 10 % with microplastics (as per Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity and Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel GEF) …

        For those interested pg 249 Table 10.1 has data for different Pacific micro-plastic densities, pg. 253 Table 10.3 has Atlantic densities, pg. 256 Table 10.5 has Med/European densities & good extensive details from pg 263 Table 10.8 (lab data) to end of Table 10.9 (field data) page 274.

        This report summarized reports that ” …decreased feeding … following ingestion … by zooplankton … mussels (Mytilus edulis) and oysters (Crassostrea virginica) take up 100 nm … (yet) … bioavailability … (&) … mussels reduced their filter-feeding activity in response to 100 mg/L 30 nm … 2-generation toxicity … (if) chronic … ingestion by copepods (Tigriopus japonicus)… mortality of nauplii and copepodites for 50 nm … at … 12.5 mg/L (F0 generation) & 1.25 mg/L (next generation) … effects … in the early development of sea urchin (Paracentrotus lividus) embryos, with EC50 values of 3.85 and 2.61 mg/L @ 24 and 48 h post fertilization … sorption of 39.4 nm … to … chorion of medaka (Oryzias latipes) eggs/uptake into yolk & gallbladder during embryonic development, whereas adults accumulated the NPs mainly in the gills and intestine yet also in the brain, testis, liver and blood … suggest(s) … capable of passing the blood–brain barrier … acute (24 h) toxicity to medaka eggs was zero and 35.6 % for 1 and 30 mg/L , respectively … toxicity increased with higher salinity … 25 nm … transported through … food chain from green algae (Scenedesmus sp.), through water fleas(Daphnia magna) to carp (Carassius carassius) and other fishes, and affected lipid metabolism and behaviour of the fish … 55 and 110 nm … on algae (Pseudokirchneriella subcapitata), crustaceans (Thamnocephalus platyurus; Daphnia magna), bacteria (Vibrio fischeri) and rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) cell lines … effects … in vivo species … EC50 values between 0.54 and 5.2 mg/L … (&) … EC50 … cytotoxicity … ~60 and 87 mg/L … 70 nm … reduced … growth of algae (Scenedesmus obliquus) … malformed offspring of Daphnia at … 32 mg/L … effects on Daphnia … with and without fish (Perca fluviatilis) kairomones in the water and the effect of the kairomones appeared to be stronger in the presence of 1.8 mg/L nanoplastic …. suggest(ing) … interfere with …chemical communication among species ….”

        Based on the referenced Tables’ data it does not seem to me that the amount of marine micro-organisms that are breaking down these nano-particles (NP) are keeping up with the level of NP.
        Incidentally, I also see that : “Several studies … showed beneficial effects of microplastic ingestion by reducing bioaccumulation due to sorption of chemicals to the plastic ….” For brevity am not replicating that & interested readers should look for that to get editors’ references.

    • Thanks, gringojay. You are concerned about the effects of nanoparticles.

      Let me note that the ocean is a soup of big particles of stuff, small particles of stuff, and nanoparticles of stuff, all the way down to the molecular size. These include a huge variety of both organic and inorganic materials, metameterials, and compounds. In general, if there is energy that can be released by breaking those particles of any size down, there are tiny creatures in the ocean doing so. And energy is indeed released by breaking down plastics.

      As a result, while you wouldn’t want to feed spoonfuls of plastic nanoparticles to the heir to your fortune, in the ocean things just get eaten.

      Could a big dose of plastic nanoparticles obstruct sunlight or algal breathing or the like in some small local area? Sure, and that’s why they’ve now been banned in things like toothpaste and such. We don’t want to be adding them to our rivers and wetlands and sewage plants.

      But for the plastic that is floating around in the ocean, I just don’t see the danger … and as Kip points out in this article, the science bears me out. There is no slow rain of indigestible plastic particles in the deep ocean—it all gets eaten.


      • Before going further I want to make clear that maritime studies of nano-particles are not always
        only referring to micro-plastics. That distinction made, some times a metal ion based
        nano-particles can be picked-up (so to speak) by plastics. One researcher described concern that this is a kind of “Trojan horse” vector allowing them to dispersal with risks (delivery of metal ion) & benefits (tie metal ion up).

        Returning specifically to micro-plastics, there certainly is data that some of these are reaching the ocean depths. Atlantic & Mediterranean top layer sediments from 1,176 to 4,844 m … (locations = Porcupine Abyssal Plain, Congo Canyon, Nile Deep Sea Fan & S. Atlantic sector) … led one group to (quote): “… tentatively …conclude … microplastics … average … 0.5 microplastics per 25 cm2 in the top cm of sediment …(while) … highest concentration … (of 11 samples was) … in the sediment of the Porcupine Abyssal Plain (avg. 1 particle/25 cm2) … (samples) … size across at widest… = … 75-161 um … pigments … = … copper phthalocyanine, polychloro copper phthalocyanine & permanent red … reach the sea floor as marine snow … a biologically enhanced aggregation of small particles … (which) … contain phytoplankton, organic debris & clay particles … adhered (by) … action of extracellular polymeric material exuded by … cells …sinking rates … marine snow … = … 1 – 368 m d -1 … (so) even … polyethylene & polypropylene … can be transported to the sea floor …”

        Above edited quote from (2013) “Microplastic pollution in deep-sea sediments”, Environmental Pollution 182; 495-499 & a free full pdf with their data charts for latitudes & longitudes is available online. Authors note that microplastics’ size is categorized by different authors from 1 – 5 mm & ” … <1 mm accounted for 65% of all marine debris items collected on beaches in the Tamar Estuary (U.K.) … worldwide (continental region) … 8 – 621,000 particles/Kg in sediments …. (&) … 3 – 102,000 particles/cubic mt. water …."

      • Reply to grinojay ==> I have this definition of micro-plastics in my notes (but have lost the exact reference — could finds it but will only if you insist):

        “Microplastics are plastic particles smaller than 5.0 mm in size (Arthur et al. 2009). The lower bound (size) of the microplastics is not defined; however, it is common practice to use the mesh size (333µm or 0.33mm) of the neuston nets used to collect the samples (Arthur et al. 2009). There are two main ways microplastics are formed and enter a body of water : pri mary and secondary microplastics (Arthur et al. 2009). Primary microplastics consist of manufactured raw plastic material, such as virgin plastic pellets, scrubbers, and microbeads (Browne et al. 2007, Arthur et al. 2009) that enter the ocean via runoff from land (Andrady 2011). Secondary microplastic introductions occur when larger plastic items (meso – and macro – plastics) enter a beach or ocean and undergo mechanical, photo (oxidative) and/ or biological degradation (Thompson et al. 2004, Browne et al. 2007, Cooper and Corcoran 2010, Andrady 2011). This degradation breaks the larger pieces into progressively smaller plastic fragments which eventually become undetectable to the naked eye. ”

        One must be careful not to confuse micro-plastics in the ocean and on the beach with “nano-plastics” or “plastic nano-particles” .

        Jambeck and Cózar (and others) state that the vast majority of all plastics in the oceans consist of micro-plastics, dispersed in the water column, nearly all invisible to the naked eye from a boat.

        Nano’s and another problem altogether — in the air, in the water, in our food, in our cosmetics and in our cleaning agents.

    • Reply to Bloke ==> As usual, the devil is in the details — a vessel of Sea Shephard tracked illegal fishing vessels and retrieved one or more wayward poly fishing nets, and reused that plastic in a publicity stunt to make one (?) pair of shoes.

  61. @Cray:

    “Rabbits ate my Toyota Camry’s main wiring harness when it was parked for a month as I was trying to sell it. My wife did some research on a mechanics forum and one “expert” made a brilliant comment. He said a rabbit couldn’t be the culprit since rabbits are vegitarians. :) Is copper wiring a vegetable?”

    Lol, no, but it does look a lot like the roots that might cause obstruction in a burrow, and in any case is about the right size for a bun to wear down his/her ever-growing teeth on. The electrical wires in our house are for the most part hidden &/or shielded just so Professor Lapin won’t accidentally get a bigger energy boost than he was counting on in his daily explorations of the abode.

    [The cable shielding is plastic, and he’s a living creature that doesn’t seem to mind chewing on it, so that’s all on-topic right…?]

    • Reply to Smokey ==> The topic did come up (way) above — so I think you’re covered.

      In my experience, with small farm equipment, it is usually field mice that take up residence “under the hood” during the winter because it is dry, out of the wind, and safe from the barn cats. We normally checked the engine compartment for mouse nests, cleaned them out, and checked the wiring and hoses before the first start-up in the spring.


    Many thanks to all those who participated in the discussion of “Where is all that plastic?”.

    It was nice to hear from some folks living on the Central Florida east coast — Brevard County: Cape Canaveral, Cocoa Beach, Merritt Island, etc. I judge Brevard County Science Fairs most years, which I find fascinating and encouraging. Hope to see some of you there.

    And to my fellow mariners, thanks for weighing in with your “plastics I saw at sea” stories — and joining in the fun with stories of floating coffins and [maybe] the living dead.

    And remember:

    Don't Be a Litterbug

    Keep those plastics in the boat.

    Use a litterbag — in the car, at the park, on the boat — take it home, dispose of it properly.

  63. Kip Hansen December 19, 2015 at 10:31 am

    Reply to dbstealy ==> I’ll write you email to clear this up.

    Short form: There is no “strata” of junk because each individual piece — each bit — carries its own exact load of extra weight, and had its own SG to start with — thus each individual piece has its very own exact specific gravity which determines the depth range at which it will be at neutral buoyancy.

    Well … yes and no, as in many things. You guys are both right.

    The first issue is whether the density of sea water increases with depth. It does, although not in a simple manner. In the surface mixed layer (top few hundred meters depending on location) there is little change in density with depth. Then there is the “pycnocline” where the density increases rapidly with depth. This same depth zone is also where the temperature and salinity change rapidly with depth. Finally, in the deep oceans, once again there is little change of density with depth.

    Figure S1. The grey area at the surface is the mixed layer.

    The density of the ocean is controlled by three things—temperature, pressure, and salinity. Of the three, the temperature has the biggest effect. HOWEVER, you can see in the images above that in the upper “mixed layer” of the ocean the temperature and the salinity don’t vary much with depth because as the name implies, the waters in that top 100 metres or so are pretty well mixed. As a result, there is very little pressure gradient in the mixed layer, only a tiny change on the order of a part per thousand or so from the surface to the bottom of the mixed layer.

    As a result, while Kip is correct that the plastic bits are found below the surface and not just floating on top, there is not enough change in the density of the mixed layer for plastic particles to differentiate by density.

    Instead, what happens is that floating particles accrete heavier things until they get to an almost-neutrally-buoyant state where they would just barely float in perfectly still water. At that point, the mixing action of the mixed layer is stronger than the tendency of the particle to float. As a result, the particle of plastic-plus-heavier-stuff gets swallowed up and sucked under in the vertical descending currents that form nightly when the mixed layer overturns. These currents mix the surface waters downwards. Because the downwards currents occur in relatively small concentrated columns of descending water, they are moving downwards faster than the corresponding upwelling currents in the larger areas between.

    As a result, the nearly neutrally buoyant plastic particles are first mixed downwards and then mixed throughout the mixed layer. Faster downwelling currents take them down into deeper waters, and then they slowly make their way back to the surface with the slower upwelling currents … lather, rinse, and repeat in the endless wash cycle.

    So yes, Kip, you are right that we do find plastic throughout the mixed layer and not just at the surface. And you are right that the density increases with depth … but density doesn’t increase fast enough with depth to allow stratification of the mixed layer by density.

    As a result, you are wrong about the reason we find plastic particles below the surface—they are physically mixed throughout the mixed layer as soon as the upward force of their buoyancy becomes less than the downward force of the nightly overturning action of the oceanic washing machine.

    In other words, I’d say that both you and dbstealey are correct in this matter.

    My best regards to you both,


    • Let me add that the nightly spontaneous reorganization of the circulation of the upper ocean is a form of Rayleigh-Benard circulation, which is another emergent thermoregulatory phenomenon which helps to constrain the global temperature by increasing night-time heat loss from the ocean.

      See my post about the diurnal oceanic changes here.


  64. Reply to w. ==> “but density doesn’t increase fast enough with depth to allow stratification of the mixed layer by density.” — I don’t think so either.

    But each particle does achieve its own s.g., and thus finds itself, in a general sense, in a depth range at which it is neutrally buoyant — which was the point. There are easily discernible changes on buoyancy in the first 30 – 60 feet pf the ocean, as you know from diving. Our plastic-plus-friends ends up moving about in a range determined by s.g., up and down, around and around, with the currents.

    • Kip Hansen December 19, 2015 at 2:04 pm Edit

      Reply to w. ==>

      “but density doesn’t increase fast enough with depth to allow stratification of the mixed layer by density.”

      — I don’t think so either.

      But each particle does achieve its own s.g., and thus finds itself, in a general sense, in a depth range at which it is neutrally buoyant — which was the point. There are easily discernible changes on buoyancy in the first 30 – 60 feet pf the ocean, as you know from diving.

      Thanks, Kip, but I fear that I don’t know anything of the sort. First, in the top hundred metres of the ocean the density doesn’t change more than a tenth of one percent.

      Second, as a diver I can assure folks that there is no way to sense a change in density of that amount. Yes, there is a change in pressure that you can discern in the first 30-60 feet, but there’s no way that you can detect the infinitesimal change in density over that range.

      All the best, and thanks for an interesting thread,


      • Reply to w. ==> “There are easily discernible changes on buoyancy…”

        You never had to adjust your BC, from surface to 60 feet?

      • Kip Hansen December 20, 2015 at 4:05 pm

        You never had to adjust your BC, from surface to 60 feet?

        Thanks, Kim. Of course I do … but as I pointed out, that is an example of a difference in pressure, not a difference in density.

        To a first approximation water is an incompressible fluid. For example, from the graph I posted above the change in density from 1000 metres depth to 4000 metres depth is an increase of about 2%. Two percent in three thousand metres is two thirds of a percent per thousand metres, or .006% per ten metres.

        So if I go down sixty feet, about 20 metres, that would be a density change of one hundredth of one percent.

        Again I say, things don’t settle in the ocean to a certain density. Particularly in the mixed layer, the density gradient is far too small for that.

        And I say again, there is no way that a human can perceive the water density change of a hundredth of a percent by diving down sixty feet. The pressure change is very clearly perceptible … but the water hardly compresses at all.


      • Reply to w. ==> Willis, You are absolutely correct about the density issue.

        I have been using the wrong word there. It is the pressure effects on buoyancy that cause buoyancy to change for objects at different levels. There are other incidental issues — temperature layers, salinity layers, etc, along with the general list of chaotic behaviors incident to all fluid dynamic systems, causing up, down, and all around currents of all types, some cyclic, some seeming random — many long term which result in the gyres in the first place.

        Buoyancy does change at depth — and particles do “seek” a depth at which they are neutrally buoyant. They don’t do it for very long….as stuff grows on the particles the can pretty quickly become too heavy to float at any level and head for the deep deep. That my understanding from Cózar, which makes pretty interesting reading.

        Cózar mentions that this sinking, which should seem inevitable, is not found in the data — when they do bottom mud cores of areas with lots of 5 mm to 1 mm bits in surface layers, they do not find lots of bits in the mud below.

        What they acutally find instaead is that surface bits break down into smaller and smaller pieces, each already colonized by bacteria and other microbes, eating away, until the size becomes so small that they are simply consumed.

      • In short…

        Anything more compressible than water becomes less buoyant with depth, due to increasing water pressure.

        The buoyancy of anything else remains essentially unchanged for the first 100 meters of depth, due to constant water density.

  65. Good article, Kip, thank you! You did a great job of dispelling the myth of what the real garbage patch is, while not ignoring the need for more research on possible toxins entering the water via the microbial decomposition process, or the need for us to reduce our consumption of plastics.

  66. reply to Michael Jankowski ==> You are correct that by 1992, most sludge was being dumped…. the NY Times link gives the history?

    Congress banned the practice in 1988, after a summer in which tons of medical waste washed up on beaches and thousands of dolphins died mysteriously along the Atlantic Coast. Although government officials insisted there was no connection between the medical debris and ocean dumping much farther out to sea, environmentalists had a strong election-year issue and few politicians were eager to oppose a ban. “

  67. Kip, at least one of your found articles, the o-ring, doesn’t float. Did you try putting the plastic bits into a bucket of seawater to see how buoyant they are?

    • Reply to verdeviewer ==> If I still had the sample finds I would try it and see. Unfortunately, the samples are long gone. All that stuff was found at or near the high water line — the assumption is that it floated before getting there. I do not know that it was “an o-ring” — just used that as a name to call it for readers to have something to size the remainder — I could have called it “the little back ring”…

  68. Hi again Kip, – You report “… the size becomes so small that they are simply consumed.” This is not supported by actual data take from the depth of 4,843 meters of the Porcupine Abyssal Plain (48 degrees 49.77 N x 16 degrees 28.90 W ) where a 76 um x 125 um plastic was brought up. This is not an isolated finding since 2 other’s came up in bottom samples from 2 different Porcupine Abyssal Plain locations nearby of 4,842 depth, one piece measured 44um x 83 um & the other 137 um x 161 um.

    I am wondering what microbes, or kind of microbes, might be at that depth which can eventually fully eliminate the plastic molecular structure. This is a genuine question I have not figured out.

  69. Reply to gringojay ==> See the graph of recovered floating bits, which fails to continue to double and redouble. Cozar et al. report that the data doesn’t find the missing 99% in the bottom mud — not that they don’t find ANY plastic, but that they don’t find the number or quantity of bits that would be expected if they are simply sinking to the bottom.

    Thanks for reminding us that almost nothing is universal — not all the bits break down smaller and smaller and are consumed, just what seems, with present data, to be the vast majority. We know for sure that at least three bits made it to the bottom.

    As for the microbes at the bottom, I don’t think we know very much about that … but the recovered three bits mentioned by you would be a place for the microbiologists to start looking.

    • Cozer’s team have their own uncertainty (quote): ” … fragments ingested by small fish … transferred to larger predators … sink with the bodies of dead fish … or … defecated … mesopelagic fish … evacuate … viscous feces that assume spheroid shapes … sinking at high
      velocities (around 1,000 m·d−1)…. microplastic fragments could also reach the bottom via defecation ….”

      Cozer also cites (2013) “Microplastic particles in sediments of Lagoon of Venice, Italy: First observations on occurrence, spatial patterns and identification”. Of course this is not open ocean, but indicates they are forming. Quote: “… Microplastics (10 polymers) were found in all samples (10 sites)… abundances (of max. 1mm pieces) varied from 2175 – 672 kg−1 d.w. … 82% … = … polyethylene & polypropylene … 93% … = … 30–500 μm ….”

      (2015) “Characterisation of microplastics and toxic chemicals extracted from microplastic samples from the North Pacific Gyre” ( between latitude 34835.4680 –31844.0020 N and longitude 12283.4170 –152812.5910 W.); published in Environ. Chem. 12, 611–617 is available as free full pdf text on-line if interested. (Quote): ” … Microscopic plastics were detected on 10 of 12 GF/F filters … mass … ranged from 0.132 to 1.184 g … filaments … = … main microplastic
      particles detected with an average of 1 – 3 fibres -1L of seawater ….”

      • Reply to gringojay ==> Yes, there is a lot of interesting data out there, and still scads of uncertainty.

        The most interesting to me in the Rios Mendoza and Jones paper [ pdf ] is that they find mostly fibers and filaments…not little bits and pieces — “main microplastic particles detected with an average of 1 – 3 fibres -1L of seawater ….”. Once expects to see the solid plastics reduced to tiny micro-bits, but they find fibers and filaments.

        Where the heck do all those filaments and fibers come from? Some, maybe, from plastic nets and ropes, but I suspect plastic-based cloth — clothing — degrading. Can’t be polyesters — s.g. 1.38->1.4. Polyprop for ropes and nets are pretty thick, crude fibers.

        I just don’t know.

  70. Hi Kip, – You noticed (below) that in samples from the ocean water column it was fiber micro-plastics found by Medoza’s team & then suggest these are unlikely from poly-propylene fibers. In contrast those from 4,000+ mt. sea bed were not fibers, but “little bits & pieces.”

    Which indicates there are at least 2 distinct micro-plastic issues. 1st category is that plastic undergoing UV light absorption (excited electrons become reactive allowing alterations) & subsequent oxidation (a factor of time & temperature changes acting on the polymer) that gets the molecular weight down. My surmise is that in the water column & Venice lagoon (unlike deep sea bed) there is enough temperature to allow oxidation down to fibers.

    Which means the non-fiber “bits & pieces” (in deep sea bed sediment) did not have enough time to be photo-oxidized in the water column before some carrier helped that bit to sink or they represent different original plastics. Possibly the suspended/shallower sediment fibers & deep seabed bits come from different molecular weight plastics; so that those which sank deep were originally greater in molecular weight & thus less alterable.

    Microbes attacking plastic in symbiosis have to do so with some’s extra-cellular de-polymerase enzymes & some’s intra-cellular de-polymerase enzymes. When oxygen is available aerobic microbial degradation of plastic can produce bio-mass, CO2 & H20; which presumably is what occurs in the ocean water column. While in low (anoxic) oxygen availability it is probably anaerobic microbial degradation of plastic which needs to go on; leading to bio-mass, CO2, H2O & methanogenic CH4. None-the-less we are probably not going to see certain plastic polymers degrade 100% since some gets integrated into the bio-mass of microbes & naturally occurring compounds; as per Atlas (1997) in 4th edition of “Microbial Ecology: Fundamentals and Applications”.

    Polyethylene’s structure is a chain of long carbon “spine” & microbial degradation of this is not simple to complete; it’s high molecular weight & hydro-phobic feature make it very resilient to microbes. If this is what settled down on the deep sea floor it is far from the chemical, light & thermal actions on it’s polymer parts that managed to get cleaved in abiotic (environmental vs. microbial) degradation.

    Polymers cleaved by enzymes wear down the surface polymers & yet the interior polymers are not automatically eroded at the same time or subsequently either; hence on the deep sea bed “bits” not fibers are found. Where abiotic degradation can go on (in the sea water column) that action is capable of going on throughout the plastic oxidizing the polyethylene polymer & hydrolyzing polyesters so that the mechanical attributes of that plastic change; & this then allows mid-stage polymers to be solubilized – which changes that plastic’s mass leading to fibers as the kind of micro-plastic trawled up from the ocean water column.

  71. Kip have you put any time into collecting some data on how much money is afloat in this ocean plastics trough. Perhaps how many organizations are collecting donations is a start. And how many organizations are pouring funds into the trough. The age old adage “follow the money” seems to apply to this topic. I’d love to chat with you. to find me.

  72. Thanks for this article, finally. I have been debunking the “Garbage Patch” for years, given there were never any satellite photos of this massive thing, no landscape long range photos, and the few boats that went out to “document” or do some other scientifically questionable “study”, never came back loaded to the gills with plastic they had picked up. The same pathetic pictures kept showing up in articles, and the same pictures of harbors were showing up. So, I called bullshit on these articles all the time.

    However, we have land on the Southern Yucatan, and for miles along the beaches, there are tons of plastics that wash up constantly – probably the worst I have seen in the world. As you snorkel out (we do a lot of free dive fishing) you can see the micro plastics in the water as the sun shines into it. It is hundreds of times more dense, complete with thousands of shoes and flip flops, jugs, bottles, and some weird stuff. This is all in a very environmentally sensitive area. If the author would like some pictures & locations I would be glad to send some. But I think the conclusions of this article overall is right

    • Reply to bill Wiltsch ==> You are seeing trash that has been washed into the local waters from the land — a terrible situation in many parts of Latin America. Every time it rains, street trash (and if it rains really hard, entire villages) are washed into the rivers and downstream into the local waters, most of this pushed back close to shore by the wind and waves.

      The same, I suspect, as we saw in the Dominican Republic.

      Much of the cause of this is a result of poverty — both individual and national — the poor tend not to care or much and the poor nations have not yet sufficient wealth to finance proper collection and disposal of municipal trash.

      Local clean-up efforts are often very effective, but must be ongoing.

      My wife and I carried net collection bags when snorkeling the DR and VIs and would collect the most offensive materials for disposal.

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