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U.S. not among the worst contributors to ocean plastic

In conversation with a friend about the recycling crisis, she lamented the United States’ contribution to the Texas-sized plastic blobs floating in the middle of the Pacific. Is she right about this?

— Tina

There’s nothing we’d rather do than investigate whether your friend’s facts are worth recycling, Tina — or whether, in fact, they’re just trash.

Let’s first look at the assertion that the United States is a big contributor to ocean plastics. The most recent comprehensive study we could find about which countries contributed most to ocean plastics was published in 2015, using data from 2010.

In that study, called “Plastic Waste Inputs from Land into the Ocean,” China took the top spot in contributions to ocean plastic through waste mismanagement, followed by Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Sri Lanka.

The U.S. came in 20th.

Kristan Mitchell, executive director of the Oregon Refuse and Recycling Association, chalked this up to the United States’ waste management systems.

“We do it right,” she said. “We’ve got safe, clean ways to dispose of our waste. Not to say we couldn’t do a better job of not buying as much stuff in the first place.”

Second, let’s address the scope of ocean plastics. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is probably what your friend is referring to. It is the biggest floating garbage patch of all the water-borne trash heaps that occupy every one of the five oceans. It is actually two patches, a western patch closer to Japan and an eastern patch that floats between Alaska and Hawaii. The eastern patch is about the size of Texas.

Although we often think of these patches as being filled with identifiable pieces of plastic, they are largely composed of microplastics, which makes the ocean look like a floating soup of plastic mush. National Geographic reports that even satellite images don’t reveal a floating patch of plastics.

The patches are formed by the power of gyres, which are the combined forces of ocean currents and the earth’s rotation. The gyres keep the patches cohesive but also move them across to other locations.

Send questions to “Since You Asked,” Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@mailtribune.com. We’re sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.