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Plastic on the Trail of Trash The Satya Interview with Captain Charles Moore
Capt Charles Moore with plastic ball. Courtesy of Algalita Marine
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
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
[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
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
Wow. How large is the garbage patch? I’ve heard people say it’s
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,
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
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
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
household or municipal waste?
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
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.