The ‘Plastiki’ Expedition

Plastic in the oceans is probably a problem, but it is probably not the problem you think it is.

For one thing, it is not as big a problem as deforestation, and I am unhappy that we hear a lot more about the Pacific Garbage Patch than we hear about deforestation these days. For another thing, a lot of the anti-Garbage Patch rhetoric is going to blow up in our faces when it is discovered that you can’t even see the garbage patch. Seriously. If you could see it, there would be pictures of it somewhere in the video I provide below. All of the pictures of garbage floating around in this video are NOT of the Garbage Patch. Also, I know of no peer reviewed replicated research that clearly indicates that ingestion of plastic bits actually kills seabird chicks.

Finally, there is this boat … Plastiki. While it’s a great idea to demonstrate all of these technologies, it will be really disappointing (and funny, assuming everyone lives) if the boat goes down and becomes part of the Garbage Patch. Stunts can be good, and stunts can be bad, but stunts always attract attention. So it’s a risk.

Anyway, have a look at this video, and just keep in mind that there is a lot of rhetoric here that may be more harmful than helpful.

Hat Tip the Science Puntit

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13 thoughts on “The ‘Plastiki’ Expedition

  1. (…) but it is probably not the problem you think it is.

    Maybe it’s not what you think it is, either… The first realy scientific expedition to the PGP was Woods Hole’s about six months ago. Too soon to say anything about it.

  2. João Carlos … yes, you are correct. There have been only a couple of scientific studies of the patch, the results are not published. I’m being coy. I know some of the results, but since they are not published I can’t discuss them. So, I’d bet the situation is more like I think it is than the average Joe on the street BUT it is also true that the current research leaves open important questions.

    So, yes, we are in full agreement. It is too soon to say anything about it. But the video I show here says a LOT about it. That could backfire. Even if the patch problem is really really bad, if the reason it is bad is different from any of those reasons being pushed right now, that will be used against environmental efforts.

  3. This stunt fills me with foreboding -there are so many ways it can go wrong. And I can’t understand the point of it all. Drawing the public’s eye to underreported environmental issues is a worthwhile goal, but it is not clear whether the goal is being met in this case.

  4. João Carlos and Greg – it was actually a Scripps Institution of Oceanography cruise (SEAPLEX), not a Woods Hole cruise. That’s like mixing up the Red Sox & the Yankees. 🙂 To find out more about SEAPLEX, check out our blog, which is linked under my name. We will post updates as our results are published.

    There definitely is a lot of plastic out there, but most of it is very small and invisible to the unassisted eye. I agree that the photos in the video are confusing. The photo of the swirling plankton/plastic is clearly a concentrated sample in a jar, not what the plastic/plankton looks like in the ocean. The photos of piles of trash are from coastal areas. While out there this August, we did not observe a visible floating garbage dump. For photos & more info, see our blog FAQ –

    I wish Plastiki well, but they are not actually going to the center of the Eastern Garbage Patch. That is because the definition of a subtropical gyre (all 5 of them) is that there is little to no wind. This is the Horse Latitudes/Doldrums of yore. They probably cannot go there under sail power. Judging from their map (which also has San Diego floating in the ocean!), they are actually riding the trade winds west to Hawaii. They might be skimming the edge of the high pressure zone – I’m not sure.

    For the best and most accurate information, check out the excellent NOAA Marine Debris program’s FAQs.

  5. Miriam, yes, I know … I’m just trying to not say anything about this myself, rather, I’m baiting you to chime in because you actually know what you are talking about. (I have not heard of any Woods Hole work on this, perhaps there is something? Probably not.)

    What is sad/funny about this is that Kon Tiki sank or broke the first five or six times it was launched. IIRC the vessel was not good in the surf. They finally towed it a few miles out and set it free there, and it was then able to sail for some distance until running into more surf!

  6. On the subject of backfiring environmental stunts, have you ever watched Whale Wars? I never thought someone could make me root for whalers, but they somehow managed.

  7. “Also, I know of no peer reviewed replicated research that clearly indicates that ingestion of plastic bits actually kills seabird chicks.”
    So, in your opinion, you’d have to feed a few thousand birds to death to proove this, yes?
    Sorry, when exactly was inductive reasoning expelled from the sciences? You might have a look at You might find more on the intertubes. If you’d care for looking.
    There’s a difference between science and ignoring the obvious.

  8. in any case, it was great to be there at their launch, and to feel an energized crowd.

    we were also hyped with their edible garden, which will provide them leafy greens throughout their voyage. if you guys are interested in seeing this engineering feat check out it’s pretty unbelievable…

  9. Murf and Jit, shame on both of you for being dumbasses about this. Are you trying to help or to hurt? Is your world view really so one dimensional that you can’t handle one order of complexity beyond “Arrr that’s baddddd” vs. “Ooooh, that’s goood” because if you really are interested in saving the planet you are going to have to get beyond this. Seriously.

  10. Marin, do you happen to know if there is going to be a follow boat of some kind or are they sailing alone? Also, they will need power (beyond wind) to get to the gyre. By definition (more or less) there isn’t much wind there. Thug the gyre. And the garbage. They’ll have to sail for hundreds of miles through a pretty wind-free zone.

  11. hey greg,

    it has both sails and an outboard motor, for less windy of times. it also has solar panels and two recumbent bicycles to power their laptops and electronics (thus how they will stay in contact through tweets and facebook).

    *lightbulb*, just imagine if you had to power your internet by excersize…put wii to shame, it would.

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