When sea captain Charles Moore was diverted by heavy weather during a sailing race in 1997, he made a surprising discovery which changed his life.
In 1997, Moore, skipper of ORV alguita, a 50-foot Tasmania-built catamaran, first comes upon some of the plastic on his way back from a trans-Pacific sailing race, when the strongest El Nino on record forces a detour through the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre -- in sailor lingo, the doldrums. There, he and his travel companions find themselves slowly traversing what he describes as a “plastic soup,” asweeping mid-oceanic tract speckled with scraps of plastic. He is incredulous, yet galvanized.
Plastic Ocean: How a Sea Captain’s Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans (Avery, October 27, 2011, $26, Hardcover) by Capt. Charles Moore with Cassandra Phillips tells how Moore returns to this area, soon to be redubbed The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and culls scientific samples with a game but mostly neophyte crew.
The results are shocking: plastic caught in his nets outweigh zooplankton, the oceans’ food base, by a factor of six to one. His research prompts a massive global reassessment of plastics’ invasiveness and raises profound questions about the implications of this man-made, floating landfill.
Moore's conversion from carefree sail boat racer to disgusted environmental activist has led to the publishing of his new book (with Cassandra Phillips) Plastic Ocean. Moore is on a mission from God. And rather than describe the Gospel of Trash, let's have him tell it in this informative Ted Talk.
Amount of plastic being recycled? diddley - point - squat
How much of our plastic waste ends up in the oceans? Lots. According to Moore (2nd video below), humankind produces between 250 and 300 million tons of plastic every year.
To get that into terms you can understand, every two years we make enough plastic to be the equivalent of the weight of the seven billion people on Earth.
Nearly 3% of that plastic winds up in the ocean, Moore says.
What is happening to most of this plastic? And how is it fucking up marine ecosystems? Aside from the obvious macro effects on sea birds and marine mammals, the answers are still largely a mystery. Consider this Science Daily story Widespread Floating Plastic Debris Found in the Western North Atlantic Ocean (August, 2010).
Despite growing awareness of the problem of plastic pollution in the world's oceans, little solid scientific information existed to illustrate the nature and scope of the issue. Now, a team of researchers from Sea Education Association (SEA), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and the University of Hawaii (UH) published a study of plastic marine debris based on data collected over 22 years by undergraduate students in the latest issue of the journal Science.
A previously undefined expanse of the western North Atlantic has been found to contain high concentrations of plastic debris, comparable to those observed in the region of the Pacific commonly referred to as the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch."
More than 64,000 individual plastic pieces were collected at 6100 locations that were sampled yearly over the course of the study... Numerical model simulations by Nikolai Maximenko (UH) explain why surface currents cause the plastic to accumulate in this region...
One surprising finding is that the concentration of floating plastic debris has not increased during the 22-year period of the study, despite the fact that the plastic disposal has increased substantially.
The whereabouts of the "missing plastic" is unknown...
And then there was this scolding rebuke from Oregon State researcher Angel White (Science Daily, January, 2011).
There is a lot of plastic trash floating in the Pacific Ocean, but claims that the "Great Garbage Patch" between California and Japan is twice the size of Texas are grossly exaggerated, according to an analysis by an Oregon State University scientist.
Further claims that the oceans are filled with more plastic than plankton, and that the patch has been growing tenfold each decade since the 1950s are equally misleading, pointed out Angelicque "Angel" White, an assistant professor of oceanography at Oregon State.
"There is no doubt that the amount of plastic in the world's oceans is troubling, but this kind of exaggeration undermines the credibility of scientists," White said. "We have data that allow us to make reasonable estimates; we don't need the hyperbole. Given the observed concentration of plastic in the North Pacific, it is simply inaccurate to state that plastic outweighs plankton, or that we have observed an exponential increase in plastic."
Oh, my! That's certainly a relief! There's a shitload of plastic in the oceans, but not nearly as much as rumor has it (we think). And the very last thing we would want to do is undermine the credibility of scientists. Any scientist!
"Are we doing a better job of preventing plastics from getting into the ocean?" White said. "Is more plastic sinking out of the surface waters? Or is it being more efficiently broken down? We just don't know.
But the data on hand simply do not suggest that 'plastic patches' have increased in size.
[My note: See the North Atlantic story cited just above, which mentions the "missing" plastic.]
This is certainly an unexpected conclusion, but it may in part reflect the high spatial and temporal variability of plastic concentrations in the ocean and the limited number of samples that have been collected."
Here are some take home points—
Among other findings, which White believes should be part of the public dialogue on ocean trash:
- Calculations show that the amount of energy it would take to remove plastics from the ocean is roughly 250 times the mass of the plastic itself... [other bullet points]
- There are areas of the ocean largely unpolluted by plastic. A recent trawl White conducted in a remote section of water between Easter Island and Chile pulled in no plastic at all.
"If there is a takeaway message, it's that we should consider it good news that the 'garbage patch' doesn't seem to be as bad as advertised," White said, "but since it would be prohibitively costly to remove the plastic, we need to focus our efforts on preventing more trash from fouling our oceans in the first place."
It certainly is Good News that there is no plastic at all in remote sections of the ocean between Easter Island and Chile. And there's not a snowball's chance in Hell we're going to be able to remove this plastic from the oceans—the energy cost would be prohibitive—so perhaps we should concentrate on preventing this plastic from getting into the oceans in the first place. Wise words from a scientist! A scientist whose credibility should never be challenged!
I eagerly await the day when Homo sapiens will wake up and realize that most of its wounds are self-inflicted. Unfortunately, and just like hoovering up all that plastic, there's not a snowball's chance in Hell that awakening is going to happen.
Bonus Video — A recent Voice Of America report on plastic in the oceans