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A big patch of plastic garbage has been discovered in the Arctic (theverge.com)
117 points by endswapper 185 days ago | hide | past | web | 78 comments | favorite

I think when people imagine these "garbage patches" they picture a floating garbage dump you could set a lawn chair on. The reality is that they are regions of slightly increased concentration of plastic. Here, the worst areas are between 100-500 grams of plastic per square kilometer. That is 5 empty water bottles in a square kilometer.

This doesn't mean that having this debris is a good thing but it's important to get some perspective as the rhetoric here is very misleading.

Your 'standard' bottled water bottle is more like 15 grams[1], so to use that metric we're talking 6 to 35 bottles per square kilometre.

Personally I'm more concerned about these plastics getting into my food than I am about whether they'll support my chair. We're going to have serious ecological issues long before these garbage patches become visible - or floatable.

[1] http://www.bottledwater.org/news/weight-pet-bottled-water-co...

Unless you're fish poo or bird poo, I wouldn't worry too much. The animal digestive tract is an active transport system operating at the molecular level and reasonably selective about hydrocarbons.

The problem is that essentially any modern polymer product isn't pure hydrocarbons. Consumer plastics rely heavily on plasticizers, which change the physical characteristics of the material. The effect of plasticizers on health isn't really widely understood.

I agree with the OP's point that the headline is alarmist. Though I find the idea of even few dozen coke bottles per km^2 at the ends of the earth pretty depressing.

Between the low concentration, UV exposure, oxidation, acidity, and salinity, I suspect most the stuff is long gone. You almost certainly get more exposure eating off plastic plates, using plastic silverware, drinking from red party cups, etc.

Why is trash ending up in the Arctic, that's my takeaway.

Half a kilo of plastic per square kilometer is a lot for water that shouldn't have any plastic in the first place. I guess it is all about perspective.

It's because of the currents. Have a look at any body of water with a bit of debris - e.g. a backyard pool with leaves on it. It tends to concentrate in a few areas.

It's a good thing in a way; it allows us to spend a lot less clearing it up.

It kind of makes perfect sense that it would all collect somewhere. I presume you've seen a pond or other still-ish body of water where scum accumulates in one spot.

Exactly right. I skimmed the link looking for photos of trash island until I thought critically about it. Especially embarrassing as I majored in geography and remote sensing and know exactly what these studies are like :)

I think when it's describe as an island it's crossed the line into intentional dishonesty.

Yes. And I've seen articles about the Pacific patch illustrated with a photo of a garbage dump with a lot of water in it, giving the first impression of a mound of trash floating in the water. Do these people really not care about their credibility?

Bear in mind that the major garbage patches can be dense enough to cover the surface from horizon to horizon: http://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/great-pacific... It's still just bobbing trash, nothing like an "island", but we're not always just talking about a few grams per square kilometer.

I was wondering why there were no pictures. Hard to get to concerned about what seems like extremely minimal amounts of rubbish. I'd be surprised if it's particularly dangerous or troublesome for wildlife.

The plastics are not inert and interfere with the smaller organisms feeding in the ocean. Since these form the base of the ocean food web, if their growth is disturbed, the rest of the food chain suffers negatively.

Hang on, in some places the plastic fragments are more numerous than food.

The plastic also tends to gather up other pollutants - PCBs for example - and for smaller creatures that's a problem. And these concentrate through the food chain.

Your usage of the term 'rhetoric' is interesting. Are you suggesting that the perspective we should have is that it isn't a problem until the water looks like a sewer?

Agreed. Somehow I thought there is sort of a plastic island in the middle of the ocean.

200,000 pieces per square kilometer in the North Atlantic garbage patch.

4 particles per cubic meter in the Great Pacific garbage patch.



These numbers refer to microscopic and otherwise extremely small particle size. You're still in "a couple of kg per square km" territory in the denser regions for these other (more famous) patches.

Again, this is not a good thing and has important negative ecological effects. This needs to be studied and mitigated. But we're still not walking on top of floating islands of garbage.

Sure, I'm not trying to say they're big particles.

Most humans would have a hard time to know if they're in the garbage patches or not.

The term garbage patch is probably misleading. Soup is better, but still makes people think you'd be able to see it.

Record levels of plastic pollution found in Lake Erie.

  One sample drawn near the border of Lake Erie's central and eastern basins
 yielded 600,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer 
-- twice the number found in the most contaminated oceanic sample on record, Mason said. - Cleveland.com

I mean, even when put in the terms of 5 empty waterbottles per square kilometer is still an astounding amount of pollution.

I can't tell if you are being sarcastic or not. 5 bottles in a square kilometer is practically none.

Maybe we can both agree that the human brain is pretty terrible at judging proportions such as these. I can see both of your points. I'll trust the people who dedicate their lives' work on this one over my intuition, however.

I wouldn't. The "experts" are frequently overly alarming and wrong.

I do understand the importance of keeping a realistic view of the problem - I'm just wondering why with all the open ocean area we don't create massive solar-powered debris collectors. I guess using wave motion is cooler, but you'd think there'd be more innovation to do something that can just go out and "collect".

Mr Trash Wheel is picking up large pieces of plastic. It would not work out at sea where the pieces are very small.

Check out The Ocean Cleanup: https://www.theoceancleanup.com/

They are doing exactly that.

Let's talk personal responsibility and what we can change.

What percent of readers of this site drank water from a plastic bottle in the past, say, 24 hours? ... in places with potable tap water making bottles unnecessary... Or nalgene containers... Or soda, juice, etc in bottles...

I recycle what I can, but I've taken to treating recyclables as landfill garbage, since most of it ends up there, which means I avoid consuming it as much as practicable. The more I do it, the easier I find consuming less without any loss of happiness.

Actually, less stuff has increased my happiness.

Someone will inevitably write that consuming less won't make much difference. Well, why not do it to improve your life anyway?

I remember reading a book by British energy person on renewables who talked about importance of 'order of magnitude' calculations and how switching off cell phone chargers is not the way to campaign for energy savings.

So, yes getting past the plastic problem is super important. But our solution has to match the scope of the problem. Personal responsibility, reducing consumption is good, but that shouldnt come in the way of thinking in terms of systems. Typically, the conversation moves away from a focus on the issue to an evaluation of ourselves and others.

Some countries have packaging free supermarkets. There are biodegradable alternatives to plastics which keep being proposed but havent become popular for whatever reason. Discussing that would be a good place to start. Funding research or entreprenurship would be a great approach.

The book is Sustainable Energy Without The Hot Air, a free download from http://withouthotair.com. An excellent resource.

I agree with avoiding packaging and more. Since I started avoiding food with packaging, I've reduced my landfill garbage to having to empty my household garbage two or three times per year.

With an increase in deliciousness, convenience, and saving money.

Here are a couple posts on it, for those interested:



These small practices contributed to a bigger practice of not flying for a year (and counting): https://www.inc.com/joshua-spodek/365-days-without-flying.ht... so discovering the joys and rewards of consuming less have compounded, at least in my experience.

I'm also teaching a course in systems thinking, always seeking ways to apply more.

the power of the personal responsibility reasoning is that it's viral in two directions, and lays the infrastructure for executing on the results of systemic thinking.

It makes you think more broadly about how your lifestyle is contributing to waste (so, you start thinking not just about bottles but about your car). So now you're considering more things.

It also can affect people around you who see you making these decisions. You buy an electric car because "hey I rarely drive more than 50 miles", and more people will think about it. You get tap water, etc.

The problem with systemic thinking is that the process usually starts with "how do we continue the same lifestyle we have". Real gains come from changing how we live our life, and that requires convincing people.

For example, talking about how higher density housing allowing for less car usage first requires convincing people around us to accept higher density housing.

Packaging-free supermarkets do not work in a universe where people don't care about their personal contribution to pollution, especially given that the packaging-free places are more expensive.

I bought a steel Kleen Kanteen several years ago and haven't had to purchase a plastic water bottle since.

I just refill it. It's food grade steel so I've never actually had to clean it.

I honestly can't imagine how much plastic I've avoided purchasing because of this simple investment, not to mention how much money I've saved.

Forget about Nalgene containers. Just reuse your old plastic water bottles. Then you don't have to worry about washing or anything.

This is what I do: I rarely by bottled water but when I do I keep that bottle for a while to refill and have water in my office. I then recycle them (you pay a few cents extra for new bottles around here and get it refunded if you return the bottles).

Not recommended due to bacterial growth: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12353459

Also, if you decide to wash with hot water or a dishwasher, BPA is an issue as well. A Nalgene bottle in lieu of PET bottles is probably safer and more durable in the long run.

How do I carry my tap with me?

Ideally, with a stainless steel water bottle. Nalgene water bottle a close second.

On the plus side: covering the ocean with white plastic garbage will reflect solar radiation and thus combat global warming. In fact we should be dumping as many plastic bags and styrofoam cups in the ocean as possible, as well as producing billions of white plastic buoys and just dumping them in the ocean.

There are definitely no possible downsides or unintended consequences to this idea.

We may luck out and two wrongs may make a right :)

We're continually creating our own demise. As much as technology has been intended to extend our life, it's more often just used to extend someone's wallet, and trash everything else.

As hard as it seems to acknowledge, but i think you are right. Greed and individual(or corporate) growths always had the biggest influence on the planet. We are indeed doomed should this trend continue. I see no signs this trend will stop.

I think it's less greed and more simple population growth. These technologies were invented in the name of efficiency. We all have a bit of the burden to share here.

For example, fishing line. What would happen if we banned this? I think there might be dire consequences for cultures that depend on seafood for sustenance.

Was it solely population growth that led oil concerns to hide their own research into greenhouse gases and also fund research to undermine efforts to restrict emissions?

Don't just dismiss it. If your business plan requires you to lobby against science and the public good, then we have a problem.

It does extend our life - or at least does such a wonderful job of providing that illusion that we, as a species, will turn a blind eye to unfathomable levels of destruction to the environment, all other species and indeed many of our own species (once adequately separated) in the name of consuming these technologies or their output.

It's not the technology per se. Technology is an expression of a culture (google Lewis Mumford and Murray Bookchin). It's our culture (late stage capitalism) that is creating our own demise. We have a responsibility to grow/evolve a new culture and develop the technology that enables that culture.

Serious question - where does this plastic come from? Living in a 1st world country I can't imagine any significant amounts are thrown into the sea, sure, an occasional tourist will throw a bottle into the sea, but how do you end up with millions of tonnes? Are there any countries where dumping garbage into the sea is a standard procedure?

I visited the beautiful pacific recently and even on very remote tropical islands there were plastic bottles in the water and on the beaches everywhere.

Very sad - hopefully one day the world will come to see plastic as the scourge that it is.

I read a whole lot of posts by a Russian world traveling photo-blogger a few years back, and one of a few consistent themes was that most remote Pacific islands kinda look like garbage dumps, if anyone lives on them. Others included: former French colonies are usually way worse off than former British colonies, and that the US (and Australia a bit, though less) has like 100x as many posted instructions and regulations as anywhere else.

It doesn't take anyone living on islands for them to be littered with trash.

I stayed on Kerguelen island for about a year (in the Indian Ocean, not the Pacific) and the North coast is just completely full of plastic trash brought there by the sea. Plastic bottles, tanks, buoys, ropes. The West coast is a bit too remote to survey, but it's probably even worse.

So, people living on islands create trash obviously, but the uninhabited ones might not be better.

> US (and Australia a bit, though less) has like 100x as many posted instructions and regulations as anywhere else.

I'm guessing he did not visit Japan then.

See under: Lawyers

Go to preciousplastic.com ... donate or fund them or refer a local organization of interest to help recycle.

Seriously. That (website) combined with personal responsiblilty (reusing water bottles as shared in other comments) would make a huge difference. Personal responsibility: When was the last time you (the reader) tossed a cigarette butt on the ground? ... threw something in the trash instead of taking it to a recycling bin? ...

This hits the front page the same day HN has an article about Russia being better at STEM outreach to young girls than the USA. If you're in the USA and want to promote STEM, go to your local school and fund construction of one of the Precious Plastic machines. It's probably the same cost as a student would have to fund raise for drama club or football team. Get Precious Plastic into schools, integrated with the shop/tech ed classes, involved with Home Ec (or whatever it's called now), and encourage [girls and boys] to be more interested, more involved, more creative.

We can solve more of these problems simultaneously with good solutions. Let's do it people!

Relevant: George Carlin - Saving the Planet


On a longer-term scale, what is the risk that having such large troves of plastic lying about brings about a bloom of plastic-consuming bacteria that emit CO2 as a waste product? Should that happen, would it contribute measurably to the scale of current carbon emissions?

"Such large troves" are, in this case, on the order of 1000 tons. That's like a few dozen dump trailers of wood chips or compost or other organics that might be decomposed.

When spread as a film on and mixed in the surface of the ocean, it's a big deal, but it's less than a millionth of the 30 billion tons of CO2 that we're annually pumping into the atmosphere.

Thanks. It's good to have an understanding of the scale involved here.

That said, I'm not just talking about the plastic accumulated at this location but our waste plastic globally. That carbon might be considered "sequestered" in plastic for the time being, but that might not continue to be the case.

The article mentions on plastic somehow finding its way to the Arctic ocean and then later briefly mentions an important term -- the thermohaline circulation.

It should be noted that this little-known oceanic phenomenon has a massive impact on the ecology of the Earth and personally I think studying it is one of the best starting points in determining how to measure our impact on the Earth's ecology (eg: sources and destinations of pollution).


This is as much as a discovery as finding that banknote of 100 in your old jeans that you forgot about.. Garbage can't be 'new'

Don't get me wrong, horrible issue and glad to see some articles pass by on HN that try to address this issue. But calling it a 'discovery' is a bit odd imho.

This is an odd attitude: we have all sorts of new discoveries of things that are ancient. The whole field of geology is based on very ancient things and it makes discoveries all the time. A discovery just means it's new to us, not necessarily that it's entirely new (whatever that means).

i agree, odd attitude towards odd claimed discovery. There is a difference between ancient things, which have gaps between civilisations vs garbage we threw out the last 30-40 years and chose to ignore?

The 'new' aspect of this discovery is that we didn't know it was there before. I think that's a perfectly valid thing to call new.

I don't think anyone's claiming the plastic is new.


And that's why i think its not a discovery, we knew it was there before.

Well at least we figured out where the $9mil went...


Meh, who cares. The Arctic is useless to us anyway. Also, it seems there is no "patch of plastic garbage". It's just microscopic debris over thousands of kilometers.

Do people really think 7 billion humans will not have any impact on the planet? They will. Things will change. As long as it serves our purpose, we must utilize this planet to the maximum.

Poe's Law

Are you serious?

Yeah, I really couldn't make out if it the comment was in all seriousness or some lame attempt at sarcasm / wit.

Capitalism is the problem.

It's not the fault of capitalism but our oversimplified version of it. Externalities such as pollution are not properly included into the price of things. Plastic trash in the water should have been a tiny cost on every bottle and plastic bag. That money could go to whatever resolves the problem (authorities chasing polluters, cleanup/recycling, ...).

In the end, a transaction should leave everything balanced i.e. the buyer gets his soda and the seller gets his money AND (this is the part we are currently missing) every party not involved in the transaction is unaffected, so the environment can't be worse because A bought soda from B.

What we try to do now is regulate capitalism by e.g environmental reuglations and so on - but far from enough, and it doesn't stand a chance of becoming enough as long as it's local efforts in different countries. Large international organizations (OECD, WTO, EU, UN, ...) really need to get this into agreements.

It IS my business if free flimsy plastic bags are allowed in supermarkets in China, whether antibiotics are given to healthy animals in the US or Denmark, or what fertilizer Polish farmers use. The question is what I can do about it? In some cases I can just not sponsor it (e.g. not buy Danish pork) but what do I do about plastic bags in China?

You could be a bit more specific. The way I see it, the problem is:

1) Profit incentives that don't align with long-term environmental improvement, in part due to ineffective regulations.

2) Incomplete corporate accounting that doesn't factor in environmental costs such as pollution.

3) Apathy and/or lack of awareness of environmental consequences by consumers - a state which is encouraged by advertising and corporate mechanisms such as planned obsolescence.

the problem is the distance in time between cause and effect and how much motivation those in the current time have.

Capitalism* may be a problem, but a brief bit of reading will tell you that Communism is a far far worse problem when it comes to pollution.

* whatever you mean by that.

> Capitalism may be a problem

Capitalism is 1000% is the problem. No ifs, ends or buts. Specially, unrestricted, unlimited, mindless consumption of resources (which is at the core of capitalism) is the problem.

> brief bit of reading will tell you that Communism is a far far worse problem when it comes to pollution

Please do tell me what "reading" you're referring to. And no, China is not communist. China is capitalist. In fact, there are no countries that communist any more (maybe with the exception of NK).

Oh, here's some "reading" (what's with the quotes?)

Recent Venezualan Oil Tankers banned from many harbours.


Less Recent (Soviet Era) https://fee.org/articles/why-socialism-causes-pollution/

You might not like fee.org so here's a Wikipedia quote.

    "Kraków, Poland was covered by smog 135 days per year,
    while Wrocław was covered by a fog of chrome gas"
(from the Eastern Bloc article on Wikipedia)

There is a common cause of neglect of the environment in both so-called Communist and Capitalist countries.

I urge you to discover what that is for yourself.

> There is a common cause of neglect of the environment in both so-called Communist and Capitalist countries.

Rapid industrialization? That would explain worse pollution in Soviet-bloc countries: they industrialized faster than capitalist western Europe/USA because they were playing catch-up.

You're not helping your argument with the hyperbole.

1000% ? "unrestricted, unlimited, mindless" ?

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