47

The environmentalist website Ocean Sentry makes the claim (citing Calgary Herald) that:

The massive clockwise North Pacific Gyre is carrying plastic that is over 50 years old. Last year, plastic found in the stomach of an albatross had a serial number traced to a Second World War seaplane shot down just south of Japan in 1944 and identified over 60 years later off the West Coast of the U. S.

A similar claim is made by LA Times:

A piece of plastic found in an albatross stomach last year bore a serial number that was traced to a World War II seaplane shot down in 1944. Computer models re-creating the object’s odyssey showed it spent a decade in a gyre known as the Western Garbage Patch, just south of Japan, and then drifted 6,000 miles to the Eastern Garbage Patch off the West Coast of the U.S., where it spun in circles for the next 50 years.

However, while the first article was written in 2009 and the latter article was written in 2006, both articles claim the plastic was found "last year". I was also unable to find any sources describing the seaplane with a number of different searches, although this unsourced claim kept showing up.

Was plastic from a seaplane shot down in 1944 recently (in the 2000s) found in an albatross stomach, and if so, is there any additional information regarding this plane?

0

2 Answers 2

50

There are earlier sources and more information about this story.

The 23 April 2006 Pacific Northwest Sunday Magazine published by the Seattle Times says:

Take a piece of plastic marked "VP-101" found in the stomach of a dead Laysan albatross chick along with cigarette lighters, bottle caps and hundreds of other pieces of plastic (all pictured in National Geographic, October 2005). Ebbesmeyer helped confirm that "VP-101" was likely a Bakelite tag for a U.S. Navy patrol squadron during World War II, and could, indeed, have floated in the ocean for 60 years before the albatross swallowed it.

Earlier, 9 October 2005, someone on a US Navy related forum wrote:

Did anyone from VP-101 notice the item on page 87 of the October 2005 National Geographic? The contents of a albatross' stomach. Bottom right. Little piece of white plastic with "VP-101". Does it look familiar to anyone? Interesting

along with this marked-up photo:

enter image description here

The later articles, starting with the LA Times article shouldn't have said "shot down", "serial number" or 1944 specifically. Instead, they should have said a piece of plastic believed to be from US Navy Patrol 101 (VP-101), which was only designated VP-101 from 1940-1944, was found.

The piece of plastic was found in a dead 6-month old chick on Kure Atoll according to the original National Geographic article “Hawaii’s Outer Kingdom” by David Liittschwager and Susan Middleton. According to Plastic: An Autobiography the dead chick containing the plastic was found in 2003 and the piece of plastic was lost in 2006. The identification of the piece being Bakelite and from US Navy Patrol 101 is only based upon the photograph.

15
  • 14
    So, although it is possible that that piece was in the ocean since the plane was shot down in 1944, it is also possible that it was kept as memorabilia and ended up in the ocean only recently.
    – vsz
    Jun 14 at 8:12
  • 4
    @jwenting Britannica calls it plastic, though not quite as obviously as Wikipedia. It's a thermosetting plastic, hardening with heat, while thermoplastics (that soften with heat) are what we often think of as plastic
    – Chris H
    Jun 14 at 8:50
  • 7
    @jwenting The American Chemical Society declared bakelite a "National Historic Chemical Landmark" as it was "the world’s first synthetic plastic" <acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/…>, you disagree?
    – gustafc
    Jun 14 at 8:51
  • 13
    @jwenting what's your chemical definition of "plastic"? When the journal Plastics started in 1925, the whole cover was devoted to Bakelite: twitter.com/plasticsworld/status/496333971891191808
    – DavePhD
    Jun 14 at 13:50
  • 6
    @jwenting it's a highly crosslinked polymer sharing many physical properties with other plastics. What else would you call it?
    – llama
    Jun 14 at 16:36
5

According to Wikipedia Bakelite has a density of 1.3 g/cm3 so it would rapidly sink in water. It cannot have been floating in the ocean for 50 years.

12
  • 1
    This seems like an overly literal interpretation centered around the word "floating". Plenty of dense objects find their way around the ocean only to wash up later, such as coins.
    – Laurel
    Jun 15 at 21:58
  • 4
    Ken's answer seems like a very good point to me, although Bakelike was often mixed with fillers such as wood dust so it's possible it could float if foamed or mixed with filler.
    – DavePhD
    Jun 15 at 22:26
  • 2
    @DavePhD: ok, but then Wikipedia needs an edit to not flatly state "bakelite has a density of 1.3g/cm3". (was the mixing with fillers a historical thing, or is it still done, and what was the range of (historical) densities)? This is important to the pollution article, because it's one thing if only floating plastics are in the floating garbage pile, another thing if also denser-than-water.
    – smci
    Jun 16 at 1:28
  • 5
    @smci the original bakelite patent patentimages.storage.googleapis.com/54/8e/f5/ac666496b972b8/… explains that you can add wood, asbestos, pumice and many other fillers. Any of these would change the density. This is an example of a bakelite float ebay.com/itm/123051640049 Once you start adding voids to a material, there is no limit to how low the average density can become. There are foam materials sold as Bakelite foam currently bakelite.com/products-by-application/phenolic-foam
    – DavePhD
    Jun 16 at 12:33
  • 2
    @smci Wikipedia isn't wrong. To extend the above example: the fact that you can make a battleship out of steel (which a very casual search indicates has a density around 9.0g/cm³) doesn't mean the steel has a low density. It means that the combination of steel and void space (normally full of air) has a combined density lower than that of water. Punch a few holes in it so that the void space fills with water and it will quite readily stop floating… Jun 16 at 21:32

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .