Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Ocean Garbage Patches: A Scientific Sifting

Ocean Garbage Patches: A Scientific Sifting

• April 26, 2012 • 5:11 PM

From plastic-eating mushrooms to the aerodynamics of hockey gloves, a roundup of unexpected findings from the study of marine trash.

Our oceans are filled with trash. Oceanographers, environmentalists and biologists have been working for years to better understand the problem of, and solutions to, marine debris. In the current issue of Pacific Standard we highlight the problem of, and some possible solutions to, marine debris in “Swimming with Nurdles” (PDF).

Add to that:

  • Marine debris is easy to think of as an environmentalist’s problem. But, according to an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation report, marine debris cost Pacific nations’ fishing, shipping and marine tourism industries $1.27 billion in 2008.
  •  Most of the trash in the ocean comes from land, and a majority of that is plastic. One solution:  use less plastic products, specifically the single use ones. After Ireland imposed a 15-cent tax on plastic bags, annual per capita use dropped from 328 to 21. The public loved the tax! “It would be politically damaging to remove it,” argue researchers in Environmental and Resource Economics. Similarly, in 2008, when China banned the free distribution of plastic bags, shoppers cut their usage in half.
Swimming With Nurdles Graphic

CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE

  • A new study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters says that wind has been blowing light pieces of plastic down into the water column, causing researchers to underestimate the amount of plastic in the ocean. How much worse is it? Data collected from just the surface of the ocean underestimates the total amount of plastic in the ocean by an average factor of 2.5. In some cases estimates might by off by as much as a factor of 27.
  • In 1965 Jim Ingraham of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center began work on the Ocean Surface Currents Simulator (OSCURS), which traces the surface currents of the North Pacific. The model is based on current data from Navy ships across the Pacific. OSCURS was developed to study how the currents effect fish eggs and marine mammals, but Ingraham and oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer have also used the model to predict where trash spilled off huge shipping liners—anything from Nike’s to rubber ducks—would end up. Run your own tests here.
  • The salt water of the world is constantly in motion, carrying debris around the globe. Flotsam from San Francisco can reach the North Pacific Gyre in as little as six months, according to Ebbesmeyer. Debris from Asia can take nine months to two years.
  • A soccer ball washed ashore in Alaska is the first piece of debris from last year’s tsunami that can be returned to its owner, Reuters reported on Monday. The ball washed ashore with markings from the Osabe School in the Iwate Prefecture, according to officials with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The U.S. State Department is now working on a way to get the ball back to its rightful owner.
Matt Skenazy
Matt Skenazy, an assistant editor at Outside magazine, is a former Pacific Standard fellow. His articles have appeared in Sierra, Men’s Journal, the Surfer’s Journal, and Climbing, among others publications.

More From Matt Skenazy

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.