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Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Issues > Spring 2009 > Conversation

Conversation

Captain Charles Moore

…Talks Trash

photo of a man with the sea at his back

In 1997, Charles Moore — surfer, scientific researcher, and sea captain — was the first to cross upon an enormous stretch of floating plastic debris now called the “Pacific garbage patch.” The patch, also described as the “Pacific trash vortex,” is an area in the North-Central Pacific where tiny bits of trash, together weighing as much as 100 million tons, have been trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre.

In talking to Captain Moore, it becomes clear that the pollution of our oceans, epitomized by the patch’s toxic stew of plastic particles, is actually a land-based problem. To Moore, what drives the market and what runs off the street into our oceans are part of the same problem.

What is it about the ocean that captures you? You are a skilled woodworker as well as a chemist. Of all the things you could work on, why the ocean?

I suppose it’s the unspoiled beauty of it, really, more than anything else.

We live in a world without remoteness. The only place where you can get away and be in an unspoiled environment, at least formerly, before the plastic plague hit the ocean, was the sea. It has a kind of a soothing quality.

We’re evolved from ocean creatures and our blood is the same salinity as ocean water.

There is something about growing up by the ocean. I grew up on Venice Beach, and to this day sleeping where you can hear the waves is unlike any other place for me – it’s just in your blood.

Yeah, I feel the same way. I enjoy the forest and the mountains and lakes, but they don’t have the freedom really. You can’t see the horizon in the forest.

So how did you become a sailor?

Well, I grew up on the ocean and have been sailing basically since I could swim, which was pretty young. Alamitos Bay [in Long Beach, CA] is where I live. I still live in the family home my father purchased years ago here on the bay. There is a dock out in front and that’s where my boat is.

Let’s start in 1997, when you discovered the Pacific garbage patch. What happened?

In a sense, the discovery really had to wait until 1999, because that’s when we actually realized that the area was impacted with our trash to the extent that it is. I was just disturbed when I crossed it in 1997.

1997 was the largest El Niño on record; it had the warmest surface water in the Pacific and it had the largest hurricane ever recorded in the Pacific: Hurricane Linda. The high-pressure zone that characterizes this gyre was extremely large and extremely stable then.

The polypropylene and the polyethylene that make up the majority of floater plastics and consumer plastics are just a little bit lighter than water. So if it’s rough they get pushed down under. When it’s really calm, all these bits and pieces can float to the surface.

When we crossed back in August of 1997 from Hawai‘i to the mainland, we decided to take this shortcut because we had spare fuel. So here we are, crossing this huge calm area, really having 10 knots of wind or less for a week.

The discovery for me was not so much “Well, I’m in a garbage patch.” It wasn’t like an island of trash like people keep wanting to say. It’s just that I couldn’t survey the surface of the ocean for any period of time while standing on deck without seeing some anthropogenic debris, something that was human in origin, float by. Not necessarily a large something, but just something.

The signs of human civilization are everywhere in the ocean, and especially in these high-pressured gyres.

Could you get a sense then of the magnitude of what you were seeing?

You have to assume, when you’re in the ocean, that things are fairly homogenous. You’re not going to go for a week through an area and see these bobbing bits and assume they are bobbing only for you. That was my concern. I thought, “Well, look, if I’m seeing this stuff, there’s got to be a lot out here beyond this single minute track that our boat is following through this area.”

Thinking about it later, I said, “Well, with all this monitoring I’m learning how to do, I should get some kind of a handle on what’s out there in the Pacific.” So I started investigating ways to do it. I developed a half-inch mesh net that I could stretch between the hulls of the catamaran. Because what I was seeing out there was mostly pieces that were bigger than a half-inch in diameter, and I thought that’s what I would go catch. I thought that’s what the story was.

About that time, we ended up getting a bag of plastic chips [from the Coast Guard]. We sent [Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer who studies flotsam] half the sample to try to decide where this stuff was coming from. He estimated that [these plastic chips] were broken from larger objects, and that it was such that a one-liter bottle could put enough plastic pieces in the ocean to put one on every square mile of beach in the entire world. He said he thought this stuff was not coming from a barge but was getting spit out from this gyre that was accumulating it.

So plastics go into the ocean from various sources, get broken up through this gyre, and then distributed back out in millions of different pieces?

Yeah, it’s basically turning the beaches of the world into plastic. Especially those that are the first to see it in this gyre: the Hawai‘ian Archipelago and other islands in the North Pacific. Instead of having sand made out of coral and lava rocks and other rocks and shells, now we are having beaches made out of broken-down plastics.

How do you have a solution when the plastic is coming from everywhere from Los Angeles to Japan?

It doesn’t matter whether it is hunger or war or trade, the problems are all global, and that’s especially true when it comes to ocean problems because the ocean doesn’t obey any geographical boundary. There are no border checkpoints in the ocean, and everything that gets in there is just going to go where the ocean takes it. We can’t stop it. There is no law that can mandate where the ocean currents flow. And right now, they are flowing to these accumulation zones and they are using the material that we’ve provided in our trash.

When we talk about solutions, we have to talk about a global reassessment of a product’s utility. Right now, a product is considered useful if it sells in the marketplace. The market drives consumption, and consumption is considered to be the be-all and end-all of utility. If people are buying it, it must be good for something. But that calculus is in need of revision.

The public is not given the information it needs to make good consumer choices. It doesn’t know that the plastic carries contaminants that are increasing their body-burden of industrial chemicals; it doesn’t know that there is no recycling for these products; it doesn’t know that many of these products will not even make it to a landfill – that they will end up in the ocean.

At a certain point, the problem gets so big you can’t not re-think the whole system.

Yeah, and that’s frankly been an issue for many people for some time. But the proliferation of our waste and the visibility of it – you know, we knew already that there was a problem when we started getting liquid chemicals and airborne chemicals, but they’re invisible to the average person – now everyone can see the fact that our plastic waste is everywhere.

“The amount of time that people are spending unwrapping things wrapped in plastic and disposing of broken things made out of plastic is to the point where it’s oppressive.”

It just seems as if there is this whole industry involved in producing fast-track trash for profit. Well, where is the redeeming social value in some of these products? That’s what we have to start asking ourselves.

So, would you say then that this is a people problem?

Oh, it’s first and foremost a materials problem and a marketing blitz.

You’ve got this fantastic material, which you know there is no precautionary principle involved at the manufacturer’s end. He can experiment with any chemicals he wants to make any kind of effects he wants … and he doesn’t have to tell you diddly about the chemicals that went into making that.

So first and foremost, it is this wonderful, fantastic material that has so many ways it can be fabricated, and the marketing that pushes it onto the marketplace.

What I say is, we can certainly tell manufacturers some basic ground rules for manufacturing.

The amount of time that people are spending unwrapping things wrapped in plastic and disposing of broken things made out of plastic is cutting into their free time to the point where it’s oppressive.

Have you been to Trader Joe’s lately? If you buy an apple, it’s wrapped in two layers of plastic.

Yeah, every single thing is wrapped in plastic. I mean, each toothpick is wrapped in plastic. What, are they afraid the toothpick is going to pollute the toothpick next to it?

What is the impact of all this trash on the creatures that live in the ocean?

Plastic comes in every size-class and mimics the food for every single trophic level. From the tiniest zooplankton all the way to the largest cetaceans, there is a plastic morsel that looks and acts just like their natural food, or that will get them entangled in it when they are trying to feed naturally.

So it’s affecting the entire marine food web. What we are doing in the ocean with the breakdown of plastics into the microscopic, nanoparticle size-classes is carrying on an uncontrolled experiment in toxic drug delivery to every organism in the ocean with zero monitoring and zero controls.

These plastics are not just innocent particles: They are hydrophobic chemical sponges, meaning they repel water but are oil-loving. Plastic is the kind of sponge you would put out in an oil spill, so they are very effective sponges for anything oily. Petroleum-derivative toxics are sticking to these plastics, delivering these toxicants to marine creatures from the very base of the food web to the top of the food web, in addition to killing millions by entanglement.

When plastic is so prevalent that it can fill up a creature’s stomach, that turns off the desire to feed, and if an organism doesn’t put on fat stores for reproduction and migration, it’s going to crash in population.

So plastic washes out to the ocean, all these creatures are eating it, and then some of those creatures come back into our own food system and we eat them?

Not only plastics, but all kinds of petroleum and industrial chemicals are in our serum – that’s called our “body-burden.” There are about 150 chemicals not known before 1950. They are having effects on children especially, and women’s reproductive systems, and in males. One out of four male Mediterranean swordfish are making egg yolks, which is not something that should be happening in a male swordfish. There’s this feminization being carried out by a lot of industrial chemicals. These hormone disruptors are having a big effect.

Really, it is an uncontrolled experiment in the release of chemicals into the biosphere that is coming back to haunt us. All our conveniences and all our modern technologies have a downside. We really are on such a treadmill of production of new products, and the population is so accustomed to this treadmill, that they are willing to sacrifice life expectancy and health for the affluence of modern society.

When one out of two Latinas is going to have diabetes, and when one out of every three women is going to have breast cancer, we could be looking at that as a global problem that requires a global solution, but we’re not.

Is there any documentation about what happens to a population that is feeding on seafood that has plastic in its system?

It’s much easier for scientists to work on animals because of ethical restraints. We do have evidence of contamination in birds from ingesting plastic particles. We know that [plastic] is a mechanism for delivering organic contaminants into living tissues. We know that [plastic] is invading the entire circulatory system of animal life that is exposed to it.

There is a real possibility that physiological changes are occurring without people even being aware of it.

Do you eat fish?

I do eat fish, especially at sea. On land, you can be a vegetarian because you can grow a lot of vegetables, but about all we can grow out at sea is sprouts.

photo of two petri-dishes, filled with a variety of sizes of multicolored plasticCourtesy Algalita Marine Research FoundationOcean plastic comes in every size-class and mimics the food
for every single trophic level, from the tiniest plankton to the
largest cetaceans.

So we do eat fish, but what we’re thinking is that it’s better to eat small fish. We actually came up with a recipe called “minnow-strone,” which focuses on the idea that we don’t want to have top predators that have bio-accumulated all of this stuff on our plates.

You’re making me think twice about eating fish.

Well, get it from an area that is fairly free from contamination, like Alaska. Alaskan halibut is good. You can also go for farm-raised stuff where they publicize the fact that they use land-based feed and they don’t use pesticides.

What about your personal use of plastic?

For the boat, we’ve gotten rid of a lot of plastic. Even though plastic is lightweight and doesn’t break, we’ve switched. It’s a very gradual process of weaning yourself off these non-degradable, non-recyclable plastics. The only thing we come back to port with is plastic.

Beyond the gyre discovery, what are you working on now?

Well, we are working on the problem that you elucidated, which is the food chain. We’ve harvested in our trolls, just sort of accidentally along with the plastic, 671 little fish. We opened them up and they had 1,391 pieces of plastic in their stomachs. These are like the sardine or the anchovy out in the deep ocean. They are what feed the rest of the fish, and they’re eating plastic. So we’re going to start analyzing their tissues and the tissues of other fish that eat these fish, looking at the whole food chain in the ocean to see what the impacts are of plastics.

Then on the solutions front, we’re working on this new paradigm – liberating us from this rat race of cheap replacements for cheap products that pollute and don’t work for very long.

“What we are doing in the ocean with the breakdown of plastics into microscopic nanoparticles is carrying on an uncontrolled experiment in toxic drug delivery to every organism in the ocean with zero monitoring and zero controls.”

Can you elaborate on what that solutions piece looks like?

It’s in its incipient stages. The basic question is: Does this liberate us from our pollution problems, and how does it give us room to experience life without constantly being reminded that we live in an industrial civilization? We need space to develop our own needs and our own desires; without that space, we are just consumers in a cage. The future will have to eliminate products that make you need two or three more products. We want products that are the easiest to recycle, that are the least toxic, and the most cradle-to-cradle in terms of raw materials. I am just beginning to formulate that concept.

What do you see as the future for the oceans?

Well, in the near term, it is going to get worse fast. Our research found 6-to-1 plastic to plankton by weight in 1999. We went back last year and found 46-to-1 plastic to plankton – the weight had gone up, the volume had gone up, the number of pieces had gone up. Every decade, it’s getting close to 10 times worse.

It’s not looking good in the near term.

What gives you hope?

Well, it’s not so much hope as it is a realization that change has occurred historically in the recent past through crises. If we’re not making serious re-evaluations of our coastal engineering after Katrina, what will it take?

The idea that the visibility of this pollutant comes home to roost, and people, through our research, learn that it has a very serious dark side; in addition to the one that they observe in their daily life, simply as an aesthetic problem, it is also this toxic layer that is covering the surface of the ocean. I am hopeful that our research will spur this visible blight to be assessed at a more serious level – to create not only public outcry for change, but also governmental awareness that they must mandate changes in production throughout the world.

Until we get this calculus that takes into account the lifecycle of the product and its true value, and until the public rejects the life of cheap products that don’t last, until they get fed up with that … that has to change. Given the structure of Madison Avenue and the advertising industry, that’s not likely to change. It could be extended indefinitely. So the picture is not bright into the future.

We’ve got to take the slogan “Yes, we can” seriously. We’ve got to make space where we can see an alternative because the timid solutions being proposed are just not going to work.

—Interview conducted, condensed, and edited by Nell Greenberg

   

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