Do the plastic islands floating in our oceans concern you?

The Global Citizen Festival, held in New York’s Central Park this weekend was at the very least, an eventful event. I remember bolting for my life after what was, at the time, thought to be a possible terrorist attack. A fallen barrier sent thousands scurrying into the bushes and into the streets of the Upper West Side. Strangely enough, it is not this brief panic that bothered me most from the evening.

Aerial Shot of the Global Citizen Festival 2018 in New York.

As the sun was setting on the Great Lawn, Maria Fernanda Espinosa, President of the 73rd United Nations General Assembly, said something that baffled me. She said “Can you believe that there are plastic islands floating in the ocean, one of them currently bigger than the size of France”. She went on and on ranting of plastic islands in our oceans. I remember saying to everyone around me “she is lying, that simply is not true”.

I can admit that I am vastly more informed on issues of climate change and renewable energies than I am about plastics and recycling, but something was off. An island of plastic the size of France would imply flying for two hours over the ocean seeing nothing but plastic as far as the eye can see. That simply cannot be so.

I immediately Googled it. In dismay I read that the plastic island was not just bigger than France, but instead the latest estimates of the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’  suggests it is three times the size of France. I crunched some numbers in my head of how a plastic island of this size could come about and remained convinced that it was simply not possible. Regardless of what the Google searches continued to suggest, I refused to believe it.

The size and concentration of ‘The Great Pacific Garbage Patch’, as per the leading organization involved in its cleanup.

I then searched for photos, and there were none to be found. I searched for studies and those I found easily. Reading several studies, it turned out that the ‘garbage patch’ is not an island, nor is it a patch, but it instead is an area of the ocean that has a higher than normal concentration of plastic. In fact, it could not be further from an island, as it is possible to sail through this ‘island’ without even knowing it.

The definition of an island is something that is surrounded by water, not something that is 99% water itself. This collection of trash in the Pacific is not an island, instead it is a diffused soup of mostly almost invisible microplastics. The selected word choice is incredibly deceptive, painting an image that hugely overstates the severity of the issue.

The term ‘island of plastic’ paints this image in our minds.

The definition of the word ‘patch‘ is ‘a part or area distinct from that about it’. This word choice continues to be highly deceptive. If it really were so distinct from that about it, multiple studies would cite the same size, but instead the estimated size ranges from the size of Texas to the size of Russia due to the difficulty of determining its borders.

Aerial view of the cleanup of the ‘Island of Plastic’ bigger than the size of France.

According to ‘The Ocean Cleanup‘, more than half of the area said to be part of this floating island, has a concentration of less than 100g of plastic per square kilometer. In no honest definition should that be called an island. If we were to condense all of the plastic in the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ into an island of the nature of which it disguises to be, according to my guesstimates, it would be closer to the size of New York, than it would be to the size of France.

I want to make it clear that I am in no way trying to undermine the problem. I am well aware that plastic in our ocean is already one of the greatest issues we face. Its urgency will continue to escalate as our population continues to grow, and more families move into the middle class, hence increasing their consumption. In fact, to a large extent microplastics may be more difficult to clean up, than bottles and plastic bags would be.

However, for three days I could not get over the false claims made by Maria Fernanda Espinosa as she told the thousands of spectators that a plastic island was heading directly for the United States. To me it felt as if we were being scammed by our leaders, that they were utterly abusing the grey area between exaggeration and factual inaccuracy.

Although I maintain that this deceptive language is at the very least questionable, there is something far more significant at play here. The large extent to which we have damaged our planet, and the nonchalant attitude we have shown towards the consequences of our actions has left public figures with no choice but to grossly exaggerate issues to try and instill urgency in society. This should be concerning to any reader, regardless of their interest in the environment or sustainability.

Far more concerning, and in fact outright alarming, should be that even this, at least 1 000 fold exaggeration, barely caused any bother to the 60 000 crowd, as they sat on the floor waiting for the next pop star to take the stage. The thousands of mostly youth at the Global Citizen Festival, are not even a fair sample of our population, they are by the nature of the event, activists and those devoted to these exact issues, and even they appeared unperturbed.

What will it ultimately take for us to wake up and realize what we are doing? I do not have the answer today, but fortunately for us, organizations such as The Ocean Cleanup, are at least for now, taking care of the mess we have created.

Are you concerned yet? Most likely not.

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