Carl Bialik, The Wall Street Journal's "Numbers Guy," today looks at a question that we've kicked around on the Plastics Blog before -- exactly how big is the Pacific Garbage Patch?
Just how big is this oceanic zone? Some say it is about the size of Quebec, or 600,000 square miles -- also described as twice the size of Texas. Others say this expanse of junk swept together by currents is the size of the U.S. -- 3.8 million square miles. Or, it could be twice that size. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, as it has been called, has become a symbol of what some say is a looming crisis over trash. But this floating mass of plastic in the Pacific Ocean is hard to measure, and few agree on how big it is or how much plastic it holds. That makes it difficult to determine what to do about it. That hasn't stopped activists and the media from using only the biggest estimates of the patch's size to warn of an environmental catastrophe.Bailik notes that some newspaper articles have exaggerated the size and density of the patch. Some stories have described it as an island, for example, which implies it is something you could walk on. It's actually more like a soup with floating bits of plastic. The story also notes that data comparing the volume of plastic to plankton has been misused and misquoted. Bialik has a blog post on the topic, seeking feedback from readers. He raises some interesting points in the story. Certainly many print and broadcast news stories do a good job reporting environmental issues related to plastic. There are lots of good environmental beat reporters out there who make sure to include all the proper context, quote experts, and thoroughly cover all the bases. But many stories are condensed and simplified to the point that they use exaggeration and partial facts in a way that can mislead readers. I've talked to people who really do think the Garbage Patch is a floating island that could somehow be towed to shore and recycled, landfilled or incinerated. The truth is more complex. Still, the marine debris issue is serious, and public pressure -- even when it is informed by less than accurate news reports -- is continuing to drive debates in many communities on plastic bag taxes and polystyrene food service bans.