The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Delusion
After I retired I needed something to do. I thought it would be cool to travel around photographing all the amazing places on our planet. So I started making a list. The list grew quickly. It is still growing.
Of course it includes standards like the Grand Canyon or Great Pyramids, but then a place occurred to me that had never been photographed. At least, I had never seen a photograph of it. I searched Google, Getty Images, National Geographic, and a number of other places to make sure.
I did find photos, but… in each and every case there was something ‘wrong.’ Some detail that proved the photo wasn’t what it claimed to be: too small, landmarks out of place, or clearly stated as ‘somewhere else.’
I found no photos clearly identifiable as ‘that place.’
Oh my God, I thought, this was going to be awesome! I was going to be the first! If only, I could figure out how to get there. So I sought out the guy who had discovered the place and made it famous. If anyone could take me there, he was the guy:
Captain Charles Moore.
While I tried to find Captain Moore’s contact info, I wondered how much it might cost? How much I was willing to pay? $5000, $10,000… More? And then I discovered that someone else had beaten me to it.
VICE News had already sent a film crew out with Capt. Moore, and had made a documentary film on their findings.
I wasn’t going to be first, and I guess I wasn’t going at all. What for? I wasn’t going to spend a shitload of money to be second.
Oh, and what was the place?
It was the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, sometimes called “The Gyre.” You’ve heard of right? That Texas-sized pile of plastic and rubbish in the middle of the Pacific.
Yeah that place.
Well, if I wasn’t going myself, I guess I’d just have to sit down and watch the VICE News documentary: “Toxic: Garbage Island.”
I ended up watching it three times, because it shocked me in a way that I hadn’t expected, and I had to make sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. Or rather, not seeing what I thought I was not seeing.
I took notes. Here is what I saw (and did not see):
Day 1 – A camera crew from VICE News hires Captain Moore to sail them out to “The Gyre” on a three-week adventure.
Day 2 – Miles and miles of beautiful blue ocean. The kids go scuba diving and find some trash: one plastic sandwich wrapper.
Day 3 – Captain Moore has another plastic sandwich bag, this one full of plastic PELLETS which he dumps into a small glass beaker and lectures the kids on how disgusting it is. It is disgusting, but… it came from Captain Moore’s little bag, not from the very obviously clear blue ocean which surrounds them.
Day 4 – The kids complain about boredom on the ship and not seeing anything. They go scuba diving at night. They see some weird sea critters but no trash.
Day 5 – Dolphins follow the ship through pristine blue waters. The kids spot a floating plastic water bottle and say, “This is the highlight of our day.” Personally I would have said the dolphins, but whatever.
Day 6 – More blue ocean, all day long, until they finally spot something and scoop it up: a broken flour pot. One of them jokes, “There’s a big problem with broken flour pots in the Pacific Ocean, so stop throwing them in here.” Everyone has a big laugh.
A quote from Capt. Moore’s original article appears on screen, “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.”
Okay, I guess that means the ship is about to arrive at the big frigging mess of plastic, and I prepare myself to be suitably shocked, outraged, and amazed, but…
Day 7 – The camera shows more pristine blue ocean – not plastic – as far as the eye can see. I begin to wonder what the hell is going on, and so do the kids from VICE. One of them asks Capt. Moore when they are going to see the big “garbage patch?”
Moore responds without making eye contact, “Everybody says, show me a picture of the garbage. Ok well, it’s spread out, its diffuse, this is an enormous ocean. You’re NOT going to find a dump, there’s NO trash dump.”
Oh. My. God. What did he just say? There’s NO trash dump? And this is the same guy who wrote the article claiming, “as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic.”
The kids from VICE can’t believe it either. One pesters Captain Moore, “I was sort of under the impression there was going to be a visible patch somewhere where there’s garbage garbage garbage everywhere.”
Capt. Moore, “Its not a patch…”
The crew from VICE has discovered something much more shocking than a Texas sized pile of garbage in the ocean, they’ve discovered that Captain Moore is a liar, that he made it up, and the whole story is a fraud, a hoax, bullshit.
That was not the story the VICE producer was after, because he says, “We’ve got a lot of good material for our film, but, but, but we need something big…”
Captain Moore’s advice is, “Well, it’s your job to stay on deck.”
What the hell is that supposed to mean? Stay on deck in case we accidentally run into a Texas-sized pile of plastic that no-one, including Captain Moore, has ever seen?
The VICE crew takes a mini-boat out away from the ship, where one of the kids shouts back at Capt. Moore, “Fuck you!”
I understand just how they feel. Because if I had just spent $10,000 or more, to sail out there with Capt. Moore to discover practically nothing, I would be pissed off too.
Better they than I.
Over the next few days, the kids splash around in the water, marveling at how blue it is, and I guess, trying to figure out what to do with the rest of their movie. They do manage to find a few bits of trash, a piece of a plastic helmet, a glass jar, and a fishing net.
Meanwhile, Captain Moore has been dragging a net behind the ship for some unspecified amount of time. Two minutes? Two days? They do not say. But he too has dredged up some trash, including a large number of plastic PELLETS.
Yes I am capitalizing PELLETS for a reason which we will come back to. Anyways, Captain Moore and the VICE kids put all the trash they collected into a small aquarium and marvel at how gross it was
It was gross.
But it was also something else: NOT THE SIZE OF TEXAS. After ten days of scouring the ocean for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the best they could come up with was half a fish tank.
The plain fact is: there is no Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is a myth, an ecological boogeyman. There is no Texas sized pile of plastic floating around in a whirlpool of doom, as even its supposed discoverer Capt. Moore was forced to admit, “there’s NO trash dump.”
But the crew from VICE never draws this conclusion. Not openly. Not on film. Surely they realize that they have been had, but give no indication of it. Instead they continued their cruise onward to Hawaii, where finding trash along the shore, they lament the urgent need to “save the planet.”
Okay fine. Don’t litter. I agree. But how about don’t lie? How about following the facts wherever they lead instead of propagandizing a useful fiction?
PART TWO: THE QUESTION
In their effort to preserve the intended mission of their movie, the crew from VICE missed out on another story altogether. In their total lack of journalistic integrity, they never paused to ask:
“WHY DID WE FIND SO MANY PLASTIC PELLETS?”
These pellets after all, are just the right size to be eaten by fish, dolphins, and birds. Arguably more harmful to the environment than any of the other trash they found.
And here’s a follow up question: How many plastic pellets do you have in your household? Go ahead, count them up. I’ll bet it’s the same number as me. NONE. ZERO. Neither you nor anyone you know, consumes or discards plastic pellets.
So who does?
Two kinds of people: those who manufacture things out of plastic, and those who recycle plastic. All those empty plastic bottles and containers take up a lot of space, so recyclers grind them into pellets for easier transport. And transported to where?
According to the very left-wing newspaper The Guardian, “hundreds of thousands of tons of US plastic are being SHIPPED every year to poorly regulated developing countries around the globe.”
SHIPPED, as in… across the ocean.
Is that where the plastic pellets that Captain Moore fished up came from? Dumped overboard, either accidentally or on purpose, by ships carrying recycled plastic from the US overseas? Maybe? Probably? Is there a better explanation?
These are the sorts of questions that a serious journalist ought to be asking, but the kids from VICE are either not serious journalists, or they didn’t like the implications of what these pellets might mean.
Namely, that these plastic pellets end up in the ocean because of the very activity that is supposed to be saving the planet: RECYCLING PLASTIC!
Welcome to Clown World.
And the clown show continues. Here’s a more recent story featured on both CNN and FOX News, “A huge swirling pile of trash in the Pacific Ocean is growing faster than expected and is now three times the size of France…”
Oh really? Three times the size of France? How was this verified? Did someone go out there with a tape measure? No.
Did the International Space Station record footage as it orbited overhead? No.
NASA satellite Imagery? No.
US Navy Reconnaissance? No.
Google Maps Satellite view? No.
National Geographic Special Report? No.
And where the hell is Jacques Cousteau when you need him? (Died in 1997 I’m afraid).
There is NO evidence of this damned thing. Just drawings, assertions, phony composites, and scary stories, endlessly repeated. What started as a bullshit article written by Captain Moore has now mushroomed into tales of FIVE Great Garbage Patches.
A story founded on bullshit, wrapped in dog-shit, piled on cat-shit. Before hyping up five, how about some REAL evidence of one?
A drawing is not evidence. An article is not evidence. A thousand articles is not evidence. Calculations of size based on false presumptions are not evidence. Nor is a photograph of some other pile of garbage which is either, smaller than Texas, visibly not in the middle of the ocean, or known to be somewhere else.
What you are shown, and what you are told you are seeing, is not the same thing. And although this is a sort of fraud, I do not believe it is deliberate. The people who assemble these stories for public consumption are true believers.
Just as I was.
But no longer.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, especially when there are indications of fraud, like Captain Moore’s two-faced statements. In magazine articles he says it’s “garbage as far as the eye can see,” while actually out in the ocean, faced with reality he says, “there’s NO trash dump.”
So yes, the bar for evidence has been raised. And as a Missouri Congressman once put it, “frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.”
PART THREE: THE INQUISITION
Years later, a guy I know casually mentioned the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in conversation. I had a funny feeling I ought to keep my mouth shut, but what the hell… I said, “There is no such thing.”
He seemed to be angered, like I had questioned a sacred monument of some un-named religion. And so the inquisition began. It went something like this:
“What are you some kind of idiot?
“Oh my God I can’t believe you are so stupid.”
“You think it’s a conspiracy?”
“Don’t you care about pollution?”
“You just like to go against the crowd.”
Oh yeah, this is so much fun. A non-stop stream of logical fallacies. Ad hominem attacks, straw man arguments, false premises, mind-reading, anything but engagement with the actual idea. And it continued.
“What are you a science denier?”
“No, you are the science denier. Science has two parts: theory and evidence. You believe in the theory, but you have no evidence. Your belief is based on faith, not science.”
“Bullshit, I’ve seen it.”
“Oh you’ve seen it? Where?”
And then this fellow truly amazed me. His response was the last thing I expected him to say. The very last. With an air of great authority he announced, “VICE News did a documentary on it,” and slammed his fist on the table, like that settled it.
His evidence for, was the same as my evidence against.
How is that even possible?
How could we both have watched the same thing and drawn exactly opposite conclusions? I wanted to make sure, “You mean the one where a bunch of kids hire the original boat captain to take them out there and film the whole thing?”
“Yeah. You should watch it. Maybe you’d learn something.”
He’s not going to believe this but, “I have watched it. Three times. I took notes. At no point in that film is a big pile of garbage shown floating in the Pacific, much less the size of Texas. Never.”
“Yes there is.”
I am at a total loss to understand the conviction in which he believes to have seen something that was not there. Testament to the skill of the film editors, the power of cognitive bias, or a combination of both. A case of the Emperor’s New Clothes, he was supposed to see it, so he did. He wasn’t faking it. He wasn’t lying. He truly believed.
I really didn’t know what to say. I didn’t think there was anything I could say. For besides his faith in the un-seen, he had already crafted an easily dismissed category to place me in: a heretic, anti-science, pollution loving, conspiracy theory, stupid-head.
So why would he listen to me?
But perhaps given a proper incentive, he would listen to his own eyes. So I said, “I will give you $1000 dollars if you can point me to the minute in that documentary that shows a Texas-sized pile of trash in the ocean.”
“It’s in there. I saw it.”
“Great. Then see it one more time. Tell me where, and the money is yours. Just show me.”
It wasn’t like the guy couldn’t use the money. It wasn’t like he wouldn’t enjoy rubbing in my face how wrong I was. But, he gave no indication of accepting my very generous offer that day.
And he still hasn’t.
PART FOUR: BELIEF
Is there too much plastic pollution in the ocean? Yes. Any amount of plastic in the ocean is too much. Is this plastic concentrated in swirling currents known as gyres? Yeah, probably.
But this concentration is nothing like people have been led to believe. If 0% represents a clear blue sea, and 100% represents a solid coverage of trash, then the actual concentration is something closer to 0.00001%. That is not just a guess.
According to Wikipedia, the worst concentrations of trash are 100kg per square kilometer. Assuming a depth of 1 meter, that works out to 0.00001% trash. Assuming the full depth of the ocean, the ratio is even smaller.
Am I saying that’s okay or not a problem?
No I am not. It is a problem. Just nothing like the one perpetuated in people’s imaginations.
So what should you believe dear reader? You can believe whatever you want. Flat-earth? Women can have penises? Reptilian Illuminati ruling the world? A pile of garbage twice the size of Texas that no one has ever seen? It’s up to you. I don’t care.
But if you want me to believe what you believe, well then that’s different. For extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and my grandfather Smith was from Missouri.
You have got to show me.
But please bear in mind, if your evidence is not a photograph, not in the middle of the ocean, not twice the size of Texas, or can be shown to be somewhere else, then you owe me a $100 debunking fee. Might be a good idea to watch my video comment first.
Otherwise, I accept payment by PayPal, Bitcoin, or plastic pellets.