Vast plastic “cesspools” destroying our oceans

November 18, 2010

Environmentalist Charles Moore tells Open Knowledge why the world must wake up to the garbage killing oceanic fish and birds.

Captain Charles Moore discovered the now-notorious Pacific Garbage Patch. Horrified by what he saw, he dedicated himself to educating people about how plastics are poisoning the oceanic food chain.


How did you find the Pacific Garbage Patch?

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% 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.


You returned in summer 2009. What did you find?

It is a graveyard. 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.


How does the garbage gyre work?

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.

Storms spit out debris from the system. The islands of the Pacific 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.

The gyre 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.


Where is this garbage coming from? Is it mostly from land or sea?

The UN says the split for the entire world’s oceans is 80% land based and 20% 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 were delivering treated sewage to the ocean you would be forced to monitor the effects. 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.

We are creating a new habitat: we now see fishing buoys with coral heads. 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. 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.


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. 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.

James Tulloch

Captain Charles Moore

Founder of Algalita Marine Research Foundation, Charles Moore's encounter with civilization’s “plastic footprint” in 1997 not only redefined Algalita’s focus—it reignited a new mission for Moore. Since then, Moore has become a world-renowned investigator in this field. He has continued leading sea expeditions, combing through more than 150,000 miles of ocean, and authors scientific papers on plastic particulate pollution. Moore’s “do-it-yourself”, entrepreneurial brand of environmentalism — described in his book Plastic Ocean—has brought worldwide attention to the issue.

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