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April/May 2007
Captain Plastic on the Trail of Trash
The Satya Interview with Captain Charles Moore

 

Capt Charles Moore with plastic ball. Courtesy of Algalita Marine Research Foundation
Ten years ago, after participating in a sailing competition, Captain Charles Moore took a shortcut through the Pacific Ocean on his way home from Australia and found himself sailing through a giant gyre full of plastic debris. Dubbed the “eastern garbage patch,” it is a swath of ocean where currents draw debris from around the world into a giant swirl of trash.

To raise awareness about the pollution of our oceans, Captain Charles Moore founded the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Long Beach, California. One of their primary projects is to create a baseline of data on the plastic content in the ocean to document the rate of change. Moore makes regular research trips through the North Pacific gyre and in 2002 was startled to discover a six-to-one plastic to plankton ratio in the eastern garbage patch: six pieces of plastic to every piece of zooplankton. This past November he was alarmed even more, finding that 600 miles outside the center of the garbage patch, ocean water samples contained a three-to-one plastic to plankton ratio.

It is hard to understand what the full effect the plasticization of the ocean has on marine life. Sea birds often mistake floating pieces of plastic for fish or eggs, and regurgitate this to their offspring as food. Baby Laysan albatross of Midway Atoll are literally starving to death. Their carcasses litter the beaches, stomachs bursting with plastic bottle caps, cigarette lighters and other recognizable plastic debris. Jellyfish, which thrive on plankton, ingest tiny bits of plastic along with their food.

Catherine Clyne caught up with Captain Charles Moore to learn about the plasticization of the oceans.

You’re noted for discovering what is known as the eastern garbage patch in the North Pacific gyre. What is the gyre and how does the trash get there?
[The gyre is] actually the largest surface feature on the planet, over millions of square miles—a continent the size of Africa would fit easily in that area. High pressure created by the warm atmosphere at the equator creates this huge mountain of air over the North Pacific Ocean. This mountain of air circulates, sort of brushing against the Asian and occidental coasts of the Pacific rim and creates a kind of toilet bowl effect, where garbage gradually circulates into the center. Since plastic is bioinert, it does not biodegrade. It lasts forever, breaking into smaller and smaller particles and gathers in the center of this gyre.

Obviously at some point, stuff migrating from the edge to the center [has been] just about everywhere in the whole [ocean]. We haven’t yet had a plastic-free sample from anywhere in the Pacific Ocean.

Anywhere in the Pacific, not including the garbage patch?
Yeah. As far away from the garbage patch as you can get, there is still plastic in the ocean. The plastic to plankton ratio is skyrocketing. I had the shock of my life this past November when I sailed 600 miles away from the center of the garbage patch and found levels as high as I’d encountered [in the garbage patch] six years before. There were floating toothbrushes, hardhats, toolboxes, big stuff we didn’t see outside the garbage patch before. Pollution is such that it goes up by a factor of ten every two or three years. At this rate we’re seeing the fouling of the ocean happening at an absolutely alarming rate—much faster than global warming—and the garbage patch is increasing in size.

Wow. How large is the garbage patch? I’ve heard people say it’s about twice the size of Texas. Is that accurate?
It’s expanding so quickly, the exact dimensions are totally unknown. To say how big it is—it’s already gotten bigger.

It’s also considered the largest garbage dump in the world. I’ve tried looking around online, can you see the garbage patch from satellite images?
No. See, most of this garbage is salt-shaker stuff, the breakdown of plastic products. When we trawl a net, we get a kaleidoscope of different colored little plastic particles, mostly whites and blues. We think the reds are taken by birds and fish because they look like shrimp. And inside the garbage patch we’ve found over six times as much plastic as plankton. While outside it’s over three times as much plastic as plankton. So if you’re a fish trying to choose whether something is food or not, you can easily be confused. Gelatinous plankton feeders are heavily impacted by this. Then they’re eaten by fish, birds and turtles and so it accumulates up the food chain. And [the plastic particles are not] just indigestible, they are also a sponge for toxics, so it’s like poison pills being ingested.

Animals ranging from jellyfish to humpback whales are eating this plastic plankton, right?
Yeah. Our research keeps looking smaller and smaller. It’s hard for us to analyze things we can’t see, but we know there are microscopic molecules of plastic that may be entering the food web and that’s quite alarming. Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer [founder of Beachcombers Alert] has proposed the thesis that all the food in the ocean contains plastic. That’s the alarming possibility.

Is there any research on how the plastic content in different creatures is affecting their longevity and reproduction?
Certainly we know a lot about the Laysan albatross on [Midway Atoll]. When you’ve got 200,000 chicks dying every year with stomachs full of plastic, we know that reproductive efficiency is going down.

How did sailing through the garbage patch the first time change your life?

I’ve always been a water person. I sort of call myself a marine mammal. I grew up swimming, diving, surfing, sailing, living across the street from the bay. I swam across the bay all the time. Then we started having beach closures and people hesitated going in the water. I stopped swimming in front of my own house. This bothered me, that my environment was deteriorating to the point where I couldn’t use it. It was like my birthright being taken away from me.

Also, my family was always interested in refuse. My dad used to row around the bay every day and made a proposal to the city to let him have the job retrieving debris. And when we’d go on vacations, we’d visit the dump and look at things people were throwing away. When I started seeing all this refuse in the ocean, it bothered me.

Before I even went through the garbage patch, I came up with the concept that trash has become the most common surface feature on the ocean. Going whale watching, you may see whales but you’re almost guaranteed to see trash.

Let’s talk a little about where all this plastic is coming from.
Well, we have a pretty good handle on where it’s coming from. We got a half a million dollar grant from the state of California to find out. We strung nets across the LA and San Gabriel rivers and collected the debris coming down and then codified them. Over the three days we sampled, we found 2.3 billion pieces of plastic. Of that, two billion pieces were less than five millimeters in diameter.

On the West Coast we have what’s called a “total maximum daily load” for trash in a couple of our rivers. The water board regulates trash and is requiring cities and municipalities to reduce trash 10 percent for 10 years and get down to zero. But only stuff caught by a five-millimeter screen is defined as trash and what’s able to pass through is not. We found that 87 percent of what’s going down the river and into the ocean is less than five millimeters in diameter. We are concerned that the stuff harming the food web is not even being regulated as trash.

Who is responsible for all this plastic?
While there’s a lot of fishing boats losing nets—ghost nets—and dumping from ships, that’s only about 20 percent of the problem. Humans on land are 80 percent of the problem.

How much of that 80 percent is industry and how much of that is, as your river study indicates, rained out municipal waste?
Ten percent is industry—236 million of those two billion particles were preproduction plastic pellets from the plastic industry, called “nurdles.” That’s reflective of what we see worldwide. A study of the remote beaches on the Hawaiian islands, where there’s no plastic processing going on and no raw material, found 10 percent of all of the fragments picked up by weight were plastic pellets.

So you’re saying of the 80 percent of plastic waste in the oceans that is coming from land, only 10 percent of that is industry and the rest is just household or municipal waste?
Yeah.

Wow… So, what can people do to change things?
A lot of things need to happen. Cars need to have disposal units in them because people dump all their fast food trash out the widow. People are living and consuming in their cars, and there’s no infrastructure to deal with it. This is reflected throughout society: we have no plan, there’s no end game for plastic trash. There’s no take-back infrastructure. Recycling is less than five percent. Ironically, we’ve created a throw away society and we’ve created a product that doesn’t break down to go along with it. Look at bottle caps: they are polypropylene, which we don’t recycle. That’s why so many birds are eating bottle caps, they really need to be attached to the bottle like the pop top had to be on aluminum cans.

You’ve said in interviews that you believe the way to create effective change is to stop plastics at their source, rather than after-the-fact beach cleanups. What sort of progress has been made at the source?
What really needs to be done is to kick-start a bottle bill for everything. Everything needs to have a value. If these recyclables we’re putting in our recycling bin are truly recyclable, they should have a value that translates back to the person giving that material to the recycling infrastructure.

Everyone realizes we’re near the end of the age of extraction. You know, the idea that we’re going to go to Mars and the moon to get our raw materials is crazy. So when we run out on Earth, we’re going to just plain run out. And if it’s all in a landfill, we’re going to start mining our landfills. In fact, being as stupid as we are as humans, we’re probably going to end up mining landfills rather than create a recycling infrastructure.

It seems most people become outraged by large oil spills, why aren’t they more aware of the larger plastic and trash problem?
The thing about an oil spill is it will biodegrade after a certain amount of time. It is made from plant material and it will turn back into plant material. Dr. Ebbesmeyer says, on a scale from one to ten, an oil spill is a two and a spill of plastic debris is a nine. So the danger is really reversed. But our species is programmed for immediate threats. We want to see what the saber-toothed tiger is doing lurking around the corner, we don’t want to know what a plastic bottle is doing 500 years from now.

To learn more about Captain Moore’s work and the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, visit www.algalita.org. For more on what you can do about the plastic problem, see www.plasticsareforever.org.

 

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