| 7.2°C Dublin

'Great Garbage Patch' in the Pacific Ocean not so great claim scientists

Environmental scientists have been criticised for exaggerating the size of an "island" of plastic waste said to be swirling around in the Pacific Ocean after a study finds that it is 200 times smaller than claimed.

Claims that the "Great Garbage Patch" between California and Japan is twice the size of Texas is "grossly exaggerated" said the research which reckons it is more like one per cent the size.

Further reports that the oceans are filled with more plastic than plankton, and that the patch has been growing tenfold each decade since the 1950s are equally misleading, the new research claimed.

In reality it often cannot even be seen from the deck of a passing boat, said the latest analysts from the Oregon State University professor of oceanography Angelicque White.

The scientist took part in a recent marine expedition to examine the mass of plastic that is floating in the ocean and found there was a problem.

But genuine scientific concerns are undermined by scare tactics from those proclaiming the trash patch is so big that there is more plastic than plankton in the Pacific.

Prof White said: "There is no doubt that the amount of plastic in the world's oceans is troubling, but this kind of exaggeration undermines the credibility of scientists.

"We have data that allow us to make reasonable estimates. We don't need the hyperbole.

"Given the observed concentration of plastic in the North Pacific, it is simply inaccurate to state that plastic outweighs plankton, or that we have observed an exponential increase in plastic."

One popular claim is that the size of the patch is twice that of the state of Texas – half a million square miles or the equivalent of 20 times the size of England.

But while the plastic stretches across the surface, its mass compared to the amount of water means it only takes up a tiny fraction of its proclaimed area, said Prof White.

"The amount of plastic out there isn't trivial," she said.

"But the patch ... is a small fraction of the state of Texas, not twice the size."

Prof White said plastic can be toxic to some marine life forms but it can absorb other toxins – there is evidence that some organisms are breeding on tiny plastic debris.

However, it is also a danger to seabirds and fish and she said: "Plastic clearly does not belong in the ocean."

Getting rid of it is too expensive and could damage the fragile ecology under the ocean, she said. Preventing more from entering the water should now be the main focus instead.

She added: "If there is a takeaway message, it's that we should consider it good news that the 'garbage patch' doesn't seem to be as bad as advertised.

"Since it would be prohibitively costly to remove the plastic, we need to focus our efforts on preventing more trash from fouling our oceans in the first place."

Recent research by scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution found that the amount of plastic, at least in the Atlantic Ocean, hasn't increased since the mid-1980s – despite greater production and consumption of materials made from plastic, she pointed out.