Environment: Interview

Water pollution: Plastics poisoning the Pacific

Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, on his 2009 visit to the “plastic cesspool” he discovered - and why he'll never go back.
\'In the future, when we list the fundamental properties of ocean water, we will have to include .../ Credits: Matt Cramer for Algalita Marine Research Foundation

Allianz Knowledge: How did you find the Pacific Garbage Patch?
Charles Moore: Twelve years ago when returning home after a race from Los Angeles to Honolulu I took a short cut. For over a week, every time I went on deck, I saw floating debris.

There is a disgusting plastic cesspool out there doubling in size at least every decade. We make 250 million tons of plastic a year and if we lose track of just 10 percent of that we will double the amount in the oceans in just four years.

I estimate 100 million tons of garbage in the world’s oceans. There are five identifiable garbage patches—in the North and South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean.

In summer 2009 you returned again. What did you find?
It is a graveyard, but the corpses are getting fresher, there are more of them, and they are coming from all over.

The stuff is so bad now that I fear for the safety of my crew and my vessel. I am not going back. We smashed into too much stuff and snagged the boat propellers on too many nets. It was very scary.

We thought we would see less garbage because there was more wind and wave action, but we actually saw more. We are seeing bigger stuff too. Not even high winds can disperse it.

We learned there is no one zone where you find this stuff: it is dispersed throughout the North Pacific gyre in an area 600 to 1000 miles wide.

We also saw a new phenomenon. Previously, large pieces of trash like buoys had healthy colonies of barnacles attached. Now, perhaps because of ocean acidification, we are finding only algae and sick barnacles.

How does the garbage gyre work, how does trash get into and leave the system?
There is an atmospheric high pressure system that runs across the Pacific. That high pressure is pushing on the ocean surface and drawing material in with winds and currents. It’s like a toilet bowl: there is a trash vortex and a spiral of debris being scoured from the Pacific Rim.

It creates a six-year circulatory system, so if something is dropped off the coast of Japan it will likely return to that area within six years.

Storms spit out debris from the system, and the islands of the Pacific—the northern Marianas, the Japanese and Philippine archipelagos—act as sieves, removing material via collector beaches. The largest marine park in the world, the Hawaiian oceanic reserve, gets hit with 52 tons of junk a year.

Where is this garbage coming from? Is it mostly from land or sea?
The U.N. says the split for the entire world’s oceans is 80 percent land based and 20 percent from the sea but out in the gyre the big stuff is mostly from the fishing industry, like plastic ‘ghost nets’ and buoys.

Of the smaller debris, the identifiable stuff, with labels, is from Asia. It takes only two to three years to get out there whereas stuff from North America takes five years.

The problem is no-one is monitoring it. If you had a public treatment works delivering treated sewage to the ocean you would be forced to monitor the effects on the ocean. Yet here we have something that persists for centuries rather than decades, and no-one is even measuring it.

How does the garbage affect the ocean ecosystem?
The plastic debris is just petroleum in solid form and once this breaks down into small particles it acts just like oil droplets, and it will become part of the water. In the future, when we list the fundamental properties of ocean water, we will have to include plastic.

Plastic is also a magnet for life. It starts with a bacterial film on the object then you get algae adhering to it. We now see fishing buoys with coral heads.

We are creating a new habitat in the deep ocean which brings invasive species and biodiversity problems. The constant grazing of surface food by invaders leaves little for those creatures which hide in the deep during the day and come up to feed at night.

What are the most vulnerable species?

The poster children are the 100,000 albatross chicks that die every year choking on bottle caps, cigarette lighters, and other debris brought back by their parents who have mistaken the plastic for fish.

However, much more important is the effect on the most common fish in the world’s oceans, the lanternfish. They live in the deep by day and come up to the surface to feed frantically at night.

They are eating huge amounts of plastic. We found 84 particles of plastic in one fish as long as your middle finger. Then every morning they have to swim a mile down with what are basically flotation devices in their stomachs which offer no nutrition.

That is a dead end, and we foresee a species crash.

What can we do about the garbage patches?
Somehow we have to parcel them out to the people who are polluting them. We need to identify where the junk is coming from and get money from those polluters. We would like more auditing of plastic on ships. The amount of plastic that goes onboard must be the same that comes off. 

Some suggest we can clean it up with boats, but I think it is too widespread and dispersed. Maybe if we could cut the plastic put into the oceans to zero it could make sense to clean up what’s left.

If there is no cure, how can we prevent plastic getting into the oceans?
Let’s have plastics that are easily removable and recyclable. Let’s have bio-degradable packaging and netting for the fishing industry.

But I don’t see any hope in a growth economy dependent on unbridled consumerism. Third world populations have no instructions telling them they can’t dump plastic packaging and expect it to be gone the next day. So jungles, rivers, entire countries have a plastic film over them.

It is time the world woke up. We can’t keep doubling the amount of petroleum in the oceans every decade and expect to have an ocean we recognize.

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Comments (7)

Anthony Orenstein: 08.10.2014, 01:21

Probably a disposal method of waste-to-energy might help to alleviate the problem of plastic pollution. If incinerated at high temperatures, the emissions from plastics is at or near zero. I think the United States and Asian nations should be investing more in this technology. It seems to be working for those in Europe who are utilizing it.

Rosalind: 15.02.2014, 22:45

I think the problem of discarded (mainly) plastic waste will provide us with one of the greatest environmental challenges in the future, because it is going to be with us forever, and is increasing at an alarming rate.
I feel immensely sad that our environment is being trashed by thoughtless, careless, arrogant people who seem to think (if they think at all)that it is someone else's job to clear up their rubbish.
A sea change in attitudes and habits is need Now.

Usha Krishna: 16.12.2013, 03:31

I am deeply shocked to learn the extent of plastic pollution in our oceans. The fact is that these plastic particles will not decrease in future if we continue to use and produce plastic objects. Shouldn't there be ban on producing plastic objects that can be replaced by earthen degradable material. The need is to identify plastic products that can be replaced by conventional, non-harmful and bio-degradable materials.

Zac F: 26.03.2013, 18:28

Thanks so much, i really appreciate all the info you have provided. Im using this website and some other websites with info regarding the discovery you made in 1997. Im writing a technical report on the topic of the plastic islands and im also hoping to raise awareness.

David: 18.04.2011, 21:55

we could turn the plastic into petrol to help the supply of oil go up so then gas prices for my car go down,because it's already at 4$ a gallon,and i don't see it going down.

Ellen Johnson: 27.10.2010, 02:40

I want to do something to help. I'm selling my business and then I could be cook or deckhand on a vessel out there studying and cleaning up. How do I sign up for that? I've thought that countries should get together and fund large factory ships to circle the patches and pick up the debris, sort it, recycle it. The plastics could be processed out there into building materials i.e. decking, whatever. Other items could be sorted and recycled or properly disposed of. It would cost millions per ship and we probably need at least five circling each patch until it is all cleaned up. Then, yes, ingternational laws against pollution. I don't like the idea of legislating morality or restricting freedoms, but we are killing our life support system. No more eggs when you kill the chicken.

ADITI LAD: 01.03.2010, 21:26

thnx for providing this eye opening information.

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