Type: an interview with Captain Charles Moore
Summary: A startling look at the state of the oceans. Pinky talks to Captain Charles Moore, a leading researcher on the impact of pollution on the ocean environment, and tries to connect some dots so that we can understand what choices we have if we want to start healing the oceans.
Captain Charles Moore is an oceans researcher and the founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in Long Beach, California. Pinky spoke to Captain Moore in December 2006 about the catastrophic impact of plastic debris and other types of man-made pollutants that are destroying the oceans and forever altering the lives (and bodies) of all of our sea-creature friends who live there.
Pinky: Hi, Captain Moore.
Captain Charles Moore: Hi Pinky.
Pinky: I wanted to ask you a lot of questions about the oceans and how they're being used as trash cans. May I?
Moore: Yes, okay.
Pinky: Recently I was reading a Greenpeace press release about a giant 'trash vortex' in the Pacific Ocean called the North Pacific gyre. Apparently it's just a huge, slowly swirling pile of trash that never goes away. It's larger than Texas and just sits there in the middle of the ocean. Is that for real?
Moore: Well actually there are two gyres in the Pacific, located at the mid-latitudes, north and south of the equator. They correspond roughly to where we have deserts on land. They are 'oceanic deserts' and they are created by high pressure systems. Now, when we say high pressure, this is literally true. Air has weight and when there's a mountain of air, the peak of that mountain of air over the center will weigh more than the flanks of the mountain. That high pressure creates a kind of a depression in the ocean's surface - it actually lowers the sea surface level a bit. So in the center of these gyres - the sea level being lower there and also these currents rotating around it - this creates a kind of 'toilet bowl effect'. The debris from the sides of these systems - in the case of the North Pacific it would be what we call the Pacific Rim - the debris from the Pacific Rim goes into this kind of depressed, relatively static area in the middle and then gets caught there. So we have one north of the equator in the Pacific called the North Pacific Gyre, and we have one south, the South Pacific Gyre. Then in the Atlantic we have the North and South Atlantic Gyres and then we have a couple smaller ones in the Indian Ocean.
Pinky: I've heard that most of the trash is plastic, and that plastic basically lasts forever; it never goes away. Does that mean that these gyres are just going to keep getting bigger as they accumulate more and more plastic debris?
Moore: The level of plastics contamination may be higher in these gyres but it's not as if the gyres contain the problem. Plastic contamination is a problem for the whole ocean. The 'oceans' are really one. There's really only one ocean - they're all connected. A piece of floating plastic moves pretty slowly - it might take about six years to go all the way around the North Pacific. But plastics are always on the move and the level of plastics contamination is rising everywhere.
We are now testing a hypothesis proposed by Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer - the idea being that all the food in the ocean now has plastic in it. So we're interested in the kind of area where plastic accumulates because we find it easier to study the problem where there's a high degree of contamination. We've found six times as much plastic as plankton in part of the North Pacific Gyre - that's where we can see that the plastic is overtaking the food. And we want to study a lot of the other places in the world where this kind of contamination is occurring at high levels and begin to decide for ourselves if Curt's theory is right - namely that as plastic breaks down it does turn into smaller and smaller particles but it never goes away. It just turns into individual molecules of plastic which persists for centuries and gets stuck in every living thing in the ocean.
Pinky: And where does all of this plastic and trash come from?
Moore: Us! It comes from all of us. It comes from the age of plastic. You know, we've had several ages in the history of civilization. We've had the stone age. We've had the ages of copper and bronze. We've had the age of iron, the age of steel. In 1979 the amount of plastic by tonnage that we used on Earth exceeded the amount of steel for the first time. So you could say that plastic age started in 1979. And this is the first time in the history of civilization that the material that characterizes our age is not reused. We live in a throwaway society. This is the age of the throwaway, and throwaways are what create these trash vortexes. And throwaways is how we get stuff in the ocean. The answer is not to throw it away, to do like we have always done, to reuse the major material of our age.
Pinky: Doesn't most of the rubbish plastic go into landfills? How does it get from a landfill to the ocean?
Moore: Well, we estimate that 20% of the plastic in the ocean comes from shipping and 80% comes from land-based sources. Land based sources get to the ocean via run-off. The simple fact is that the ocean is downhill from virtually everywhere on Earth. So when something is left lying by the side of the road, or in the street, or is blown into a river, or blown into the ocean, that's where it ends up. Everything washes down to the ocean. In the past run-off largely comprised of organic matter made for a very rich environment near the mouths of rivers. It made a very healthy habitat. But with humanity expanding and over 50% of the 6 billion people on Earth living within 50 miles of the coast, not only our trash but our chemicals, our lawn fertilizers, our industrial pollutants, our treated sewage, all these things are ending up in the ocean and are creating an unhealthy environment. Trash is just one component of that unhealthy environment but we do believe it makes up 80% of the debris in the ocean. In just 3 days of sampling the two main rivers coming out of the Los Angeles basin here in California, we found 60 tons of plastic debris comprised of 2.3 billion individual pieces of plastic coming down those rivers. 3 days! So that stuff will end up in the ocean and some of it will begin circulating towards and into these trash vortexes. A tiny percentage of it will get pushed back on shore and be cleaned up but most of it will escape and make its way into the ocean.
Pinky: Wow. That's really crazy about your river samples. How do you come up with these kinds of figures?
Moore: We do trawls to determine the ratio of plastic to plankton. We use what's called a manta trawl. A manta trawl is a net trawled behind a mouth that's shaped sort of like the mouth on a manta ray. A manta ray is a ray that eats plankton and it does it by filtering the water through a large mouth. We have a net that has a 'big mouth' about a meter wide and we trawl through the water and that net collects everything that's hanging around the surface within about 6 inches of the surface. So we collect plastic, we collect plankton, seaweed, or sometimes leaves, insects, and other things that have it made it off the land and into the ocean. Then we go back to our laboratory and separate them out and find out what exactly is in each one of our samples. We sampled 11 different stations in the North Pacific Gyre over several hundred miles. This is how we found six times as much plastic by weight as zooplankton, the animal plankton in the ocean. The ocean has plant plankton that's created by photosynthesis during the day and those plants are consumed by animal plankton that come up from the depths and feed at the surface at night. We trawl a net that's a third of a millimeter mesh and it catches zooplankton (they're a little larger than the plant plankton). The zooplankton is what fish would be eating. We realized that a fish would have six times as much chance to consume something that didn't have any nutrients in it as something that did. So, that was pretty alarming.
Now, the total quantity of plastic in the ocean is something that we've been trying to figure out. We've got percentages as to how much comes from ships and how much comes from land, but how much total is out there? And in researching this I've looked at waste stream data and the land fill figures just don't add up. There's not enough plastic in the land fills to account for how much plastic is being produced. So in looking at those figures I came up with what I think is a very conservative estimate - that 5% of all the plastic ever made has ended up in the ocean. That amounts to 100 million tons. So breaking that 100 million tons of plastic down into tiny individual molecules of plastic (which can take hundreds of years), there may be enough plastic in the ocean for it to have contaminated virtually every organism out there.
Pinky: I'm sure this is a stupid question, but what's wrong with having micro-particles of plastic in all the sea creatures out there?
Moore: Well, we want our food to be healthy and nutritious. We want the food that nature and all her animals eat to be healthy and nutritious, and plastic is neither one of those things. And let me tell you some of the ways in which it's unhealthy. Plastic is a manmade molecule that is made by linking a lot of individual molecules together using a catalyst. That process creates a very long chain. Those chains are then stuck together and melted and we make plastic objects out of that. And it turns out that the plastic polymer, this mini chain of molecules, has got an open structure, a structure that allows for other chemicals to be absorbed. Especially oily chemicals. In fact polypropylene, the same material we use to make bottle caps, is used to clean up oil spills in the ocean. So, plastics in the ocean can accumulate pollutants. A lot of the pesticides, herbicides, and industrial chemicals that poison our environment are oily. And plastic, being lipophilic ('oil-loving'), will suck up those pollutants. So, here we have all these little bits of plastic floating around in the ocean and they are absorbing up to a million times the concentration of the pollutants in the seawater itself. So they're just like tiny sponges floating around in the ocean collecting all the poisons and transferring it up the food web. That will affect fish, it will affect birds, and it will affect us. Especially those of us that consume seafood.
Pinky: So are fish dying from eating all this toxic plastic?
Moore: Well, that's a good question. We don't have good data on sick fish in the ocean. A sick fish in the ocean is pretty much instantly consumed by another fish. We do see die-offs in rivers and lakes where the body of water is more contained, but in the ocean it's much more difficult to study. What we want to do is have a controlled experiment where we expose fish in a laboratory to plastics and see how it changes their physiology. See, plastics don't come in a pure form. When someone makes an item out of plastic they add conditioners to the plastic to give it certain properties. They add things that make the plastic flexible, things that make the plastic resistant to decay, and so on. And these chemical additives do leak out of the plastic when they're exposed to water. And it's been shown that these chemicals can change the sexual characteristics of anything that consumes them. You have a situation in which some of the chemicals from the plastic are capable of binding to estrogen receptors. They're very similar to estrogen and they bind to estrogen receptors in fish, and birds, and humans too. We all have these estrogen receptors; even men have some estrogen in their metabolism. So, when you add extra phony estrogen to an organism, it changes their sexual characteristics. And what we're seeing is the feminization of fish. We're seeing male fish with egg yolks. Male fish normally don't have egg yolks inside of them, but that's what we're seeing now. So, we are, I think, able to say that some of the chemicals in plastics are probably not good for us because they're changing male fish into female fish.
Pinky: That doesn't sound good... Okay, how do we reverse the process? Is there such a thing as healing the ocean?
Moore: Well, the plastic contamination is irreparable in the sense that you can't go get it back out of the ocean. Once these plastics break down into fine particles of plastic dust and plastic molecules and it's already moved throughout the entire ocean realm, there's no cleanup possible. You can't send the Boy Scouts out on a Saturday to clean up ozone-depleting chemicals out of the atmosphere and you can't send them out into the ocean to clean up tiny microscopic particles of plastic. There's no cleanup possible for certain types of contamination and plastic contamination in the ocean is one of them. So the point is that if we're going to keep putting plastics into the ocean, it's only going to get worse.
And we've already reached the point at which seafood is dangerous to consume. I personally don't like eating any big fish. I'd prefer to eat smaller fish because toxins go through a process of bio-accumulation where the big fish eat many small fish and each one of those small fish contributes to that big fish's poison load. So if you eat lower down on the food chain you're getting less contaminants. I think it's already dangerous to eat any large fish in the ocean, in spite of the fact that most people want large fish and that's why the large fish have been fished out first. So yeah, fish are contaminated. They're contaminated both by the plastic vector and by many other vectors. The zooplankton itself accumulates toxins from the surface and transmits them up the food web, so virtually all of our fish - especially large fish - are heavily contaminated and probably dangerous, especially for women of child bearing age and infants and children. And these amounts exist in virtually all seafood.
We're at the point where the ocean has been contaminated and we can't clean it up. We have to stop putting the toxic chemicals in. The ocean will eventually rid herself of these contaminants, but we have to give her a long, long time. We have to stop abusing her so that she has time to heal.
Pinky: This is awful - Bunny loves fish and Kim & Mimi love shrimp. How did we ever get so addicted to plastic?
Moore: Well, let's take a look at just one aspect: Globalization. The lubricant for all these goods moving throughout the globe - we're getting our grapes from Chile and our shoes from China - well it's all packed in plastic. And we're sending stuff to nations that are just developing now, things made out of plastic. And everything that they're producing is getting wrapped in plastic and coming to us! It's how goods are delivered.
Our food delivery system is also mostly plastic. We're getting stuff put in plastic or styrofoam containers. What used to be a paper plate is now a plastic plate. We treat plastic plates like paper plates because they have the same function, but it's not the same. Paper will break down and disappear, but plastic won't. Even if it breaks down into little micro-particles of plastic, it'll continue to contaminate our planet for hundreds of years. People have to realize that you can't throw plastic away. There is no 'away'. It's just scattered throughout every corner of our environment. We've got a situation in which our whole world is now surrounded with plastic and every aspect of our lives has plastic in it. And yet that material that defines our age is getting recycled at less than 3% of the total. And that 97% is not all going to land fills.
What I'm saying is that there has to be an endgame. Plastic has to have a place to go, just like a broken spear went back to the blacksmith to make a horseshoe in the age of steel. Now, in the age of plastic we have to have broken plastic go to a place where it gets melted down and gets turned into a new product. We can't have it be ending up in the environment. If we do, mother ocean doesn't have a chance, and really, I'm afraid, neither do we. We're sexual reproducers and we'll eventually have only one sex. We're not going to be able to reproduce.
Pinky: Why is less than 3% of plastic being recycled when the American Plastic Council claims that plastic is 100% recyclable?
Moore: Having the potential to recycle, versus actually having the infrastructure to take plastics back and recycle it, are two different things. Yes, anyone can invent a process for recycling plastic but right now it just costs too much to recycle plastics. It's not like how we can take old fruit and vegetables and turn it into soil and create new fruit and vegetables. That's a closed loop. That's 100% recyclable. So the American Plastic Council is right when they say plastics are recyclable, but since it's not being recycled, it's not being done - then what? We need to have government support, it needs to be supported from the people. We need financial incentives. People need to be paid for their recyclable trash. When you recycle, you should get the value of your recyclables deducted from your trash bill.
Pinky: So until this infrastructure is created, what are our current alternatives to plastic?
Moore: Well, there are what they call 'bioplastics', which are made from biodegradable substances. These can play a part. Where we have plastics that are bound to end up in the environment, they at least ought to be biodegradable so that we have a situation in which organisms can break down the plastic, unlike the petroleum-based plastics. We also need to stop making plastics that harm our bodies. We need to make plastics simpler so that we don't have 5 different kinds of plastic in one consumer wrapper that can't be recycled.
Pinky: Are there any companies out there right now that are taking positive steps regarding their use of plastics?
Moore: Yes, there are companies on both sides of the equation. For example, Patagonia [the clothing company], they've invested $10 million in a machine in Japan that will dismantle their garments. They make boxes available in their stores to accept back used garments, ship them to Japan, remove the zippers, disassemble the threads, and make them into new fibers, new garments. I like that.
Interface Carpet is another company that is trying something similar - this is still talking about petroleum plastics, not biodegradable mind you - but they do take all their carpet fibers and take them apart and make new carpet out of the old carpet. So these are small positive steps towards reuse of traditional petroleum-based plastics.
You know, the reason why petroleum-based clothing and carpet is so popular is because they are impermeable to air and moisture. That's the reason why we have so many plastics for the packaging of food - petroleum-based plastics stop air and moisture from penetrating. Now, it's possible in some of these biodegradables to make them provide an air and moisture barrier for just for a certain amount of time. I mean, you don't need your peanuts in a bag that lasts five hundred years because the peanuts are going to spoil way before that. So what we need is to have companies develop biodegradable food packaging that will deteriorate at the same rate as the food, so that even if the plastic breaks down more rapidly than a petroleum-based material, it doesn't matter because the food inside is no good anyway. This is what you call having an appropriate life for the plastic rather than an inappropriate life for the plastic.
But none of these kinds of biodegradable products have made it to the shelves yet in any quantity that's worth talking about. Even the one company that has a biodegradable water bottle, Biota, still has a non-biodegradable polypropylene cap. So as of right now I really can't recommend any of the biodegradables.
Now, I do think that if you're running something like, say, an eBay business and you have to ship many products out, there are biodegradable peanuts that you could be using for packing material. That's a compost-able packing material. Or you could also use just regular popcorn. You can pop a bunch of popcorn, wrap your product in newspaper, put your product in that, and that'll be fine for keeping it from breaking in shipment.
For yard waste I recommend BioBags, which will compost along with the yard waste. So you put your grass clippings in a BioBag then you can just bury that whole thing in the ground. The whole thing will compost.
Pinky: When you go to the grocery store and they ask you: Paper or Plastic? Then what?
Moore: Well I bring my own cotton bag, that's the best. But if I've forgotten my cotton bags for some reason, I'll say paper, simply because if my paper bag gets lost to the environment it will break down.
Pinky: Right. Okay, great Captain Moore, you've been totally helpful with your answers, very thorough, and I really enjoyed speaking with you.
Moore: You too Pinky.
Pinky: Thank you.
The Algalita Marine Research Foundation's website has a large archive of excellent educational materials (research summaries, photos, videos, etc.) for anyone who wants to learn more about this planetary crisis. Please visit and learn more.
Plastic Debris: Rivers to Sea is a joint project of AMRF and the California Costal Commission. They have an excellent website with lots of information. Go visit!