The ocean is awash with plastic. Giant patches of discarded plastic items, bottles, bags are forming in oceans like the Pacific. Plastic pieces are killing off wildlife that swallow or get choked by them. What can be done about the mounds of plastic that is killing off our ocean life? Maria Armoudian spoke with Charles Moore, founder of the ALGALITA Marine Research and Education Institute.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Maria Armoudian: Now you have researched these garbage patches in the ocean. Could you start by helping us understand what exactly these garbage patches are and how many there are?
Charles Moore: They are fairly stable current systems in the oceans that are under high-pressure cells and they are north and south of the equator about the latitude of terrestrial deserts. So they are what we call the sub-tropics that are in between the equatorial zone which is tropical and the northern zone which is Arctic and cold. So this is moderate temperatures dominated by high pressure. High pressure simply means that the weight of the atmosphere above these areas is greater than in other parts of the earth, that is because the air is heated at the equator and rises and creates these mountains of air over the middle latitudes before they condense and come down in the poles. So this mountain of air that is over these sub-tropical zones descends in a clockwise rotation in the northern hemisphere and in a counter-clockwise rotation in the southern hemisphere. And as it descends in this gentle movement it pulls on the surface of the ocean so over time it creates very stable either clockwise currents that rotate and scour the coastlines of the associated continents, or in the southern hemisphere counter-clockwise rotations that do the same thing. So basically what you have is kind of a toilet bowl effect, I call it, where you are scouring the edges of the toilet bowl which is the continents that release most of this debris and bringing it into the centre which acts as a kind of accumulator for the trash. A lot of people ask me, ‘Well, is the gyre [system of ocean currents collecting pollutants] getting bigger?’ No, the gyres are determined by this geotropic forces so it is not the gyres that are increasing in size. What is happening is the debris that is being accumulated by these gyres is increasing and so we are starting to see it on the periphery more and not just in the centre of these garbage patches.
MA: There are how many garbage patches now?
CM: Five major ones. North and South Atlantic, North and South Pacific, and the Indian Ocean are the major oceanic gyres and they cover approximately forty percent of the world ocean which, if you work that out, it is close to a quarter of the earth’s surface is actually these gyres. Now they are remote from land, so they are not a place where, say for instance, a recreational boater or even a commercial boater would hang out. The same forces that create a terrestrial desert are creating these oceanic deserts and because they are in the deep ocean away from land and they are not in Arctic areas where there is a lot of runoff and they are getting a lot of nutrients, they are nutrient-poor, they are what we call depauperate, so in the same sense that a terrestrial desert is devoid of life that is also true of these garbage patches. The only thing I would say that differentiates them from a terrestrial desert is that there is a lot of ocean juvenile species that go to these gyres because they are devoid of large predators that grow up. So small sea turtles and small mola, a sort of fish without a tail that grows to an enormous size. These juveniles hang out in these gyres so the fact is they don’t have a lot of life but the life that they do have is at a very important life stage when it is growing up there, and the fact that we are filling it up with all this plastic waste is having a devastating effect on those juvenile species.
MA: So these gyres are really just islands of plastic garbage?
CM: I would call them more a soup of plastic garbage, not an island. When I first discovered it in 1997, it was just a piece here and a piece there but we didn’t really take research equipment out there until 1999 to get quantitative estimates of the amount of plastic in these garbage patches. So it has been nearly two decades since we really started measuring and monitoring. What we do out there is unique in the world of garbage gyres because most people don’t have the wherewithal to go except for one trip on a very sporadic basis, but we have been back to the same eleven stations in that time. So we have a running dataset of how it is been changing. And I can tell you it has been changing dramatically for the worse, the quantity of debris is growing. Now when I first went out there, people asked me what it was like and I was like ‘Oh, it is just a piece here and there’. Well years later it was about ten pieces per minute that we would spot so it had increased a lot. Now two decades later there is so much stuff there that it is like being an icebreaker you are going through so much junk and you can’t even count how much is going by the boat. It is that much worse.
MA: Where is it predominantly coming from? Is this coming from everybody over the world throwing plastic into the trash?
CM: We always want to combat pollution by looking to find the worst and combat that first. It is just the way resources are allocated, you allocate resources to combat the worst first. But in the case of plastic pollution, it is such a non-point-sourced pollutant that you can’t locate the worst offender. Try as you will you can’t find who is the worst because there is no single individual source. It is not a point source it is a non-point source. And now that even the remotest tribes and the most primitive civilisations have polyester t-shirts that they have been given by somebody who has visited there, these polyester t-shirts are shedding thousands of fragments every time they are washed, everybody on the planet now is a contributor. These polyester fragments have gotten so much into the seafood that the average European shellfish eater was just shown in a study to consume eleven thousand synthetic fibres in their shellfish consumption each year. So these fibres are everywhere in the environment, these garbage patches accumulate the floating stuff, but the stuff that sinks to the bottom is something else. We have fundamentally changed the nature of the ocean itself into this synthetic polymer soup and I don’t think we have anywhere near the information that we need to say what the consequences of that are, but we do know for a fact that the consequences are deleterious, that millions of animals are dying, starving, being strangled and caught by this trash. It is a dire scenario that is very little understood.
MA: You have said before that plastics are the most common pollutants but they are also as dangerous as climate change to life on earth?
CM: Well what I said was that it is a hypothesis that should be seriously tested. What happens with climate change is that you get migration towards the poles: things heat up at the equator and species move. So you do lose species that can’t manoeuvre out of the heat that is being generated and find a more temperate living space that corresponds to what they are used to. But humans can do that. Maybe a smart investment is buying real estate in Northern Canada or Siberia or Patagonia or Tasmania, because we can move out of the way of some of these phenomena that are protecting the planet. But when you are caught in a net of plastic, you can’t get away. Ghost fishing, they call it. It is extremely destructive and the traps that fisherman put out get lost, about ten percent of them each year and they are responsible for decimating about ten percent of the target catch. So in addition to this kind of getting caught and tangled up in this stuff, there is this other phenomenon where these plastics accumulate pollutants and they break into these bite-sized bits and everything ends up with bite marks on it because it is being chewed up. The ocean is a very sparse place and animals have to swim a long way to find something to eat so when they find anything that looks edible they are going to sample it and everything is getting sampled, all this trash has been completely chewed around the edges and these bits that the animals are eating are poisoned pills. Up to a million times the level of the pollutants in the surrounding seawaters have been sponged up by these bits and are then transmitted through the food web. So you are getting a non-nutritive, non-digestible food mimic put into all these different species, hundreds of species are now consuming this stuff and so it is weakening the fitness of the marine life itself. This needs to be compared with what is happening with climate change and studied.
MA: Let’s turn to solutions. You have not been an advocate for recycling because there are some problems there. What are the problems with recycling?
CM: Plastic is not like metal. The age of steel was characterised by a lot of recycling. When we replaced steel with plastic in 1979 – the production of plastic in the US outstripped steel – when that happened you had a material that for the first time in modern human civilisation the product that defines the age, the age of plastic that product is not really recyclable in any major way, it has too many polymers associated with it. Let me innumerate the problems. First of all, there are too many different types of plastic. You can’t mix polycarbonate plastic with polyvinylchloride plastic and get a useable plastic, you can’t mix polyethylene plastic with polyvinylchloride plastic or with PET plastic and get a useable material. You have to separate them. But this is not what is done in manufacturing, in manufacturing they are mixed together because one might be used for the cap and the bottle itself can be something else, so it is a totally different plastic. They have to be separated and then the labelling maybe a thin sheet of plastic of another type. Then with potato chip bags you have got a sheet of aluminium that has been electroplated onto the plastic to keep moisture from penetrating so the potato chips stay crisp. There are many layers there that are a nightmare to recycle only very few plants are equipped to even tear those things apart to even try to get at recycling them. Then finally when you get the stuff separated you have got to try and clean it because if you don’t clean it, it is not going to be purified in the re-melting processes, it starts melting at the boiling point of water about 212 degrees Fahrenheit, that is when plastic starts to melt. This is not going to vaporise greases or contaminants, paints, all the things that you get rid of when you recycle steel or you recycle glass or you recycle aluminium all those contaminants that get vaporised off and you get that clean metal substrate, that doesn’t happen with plastics so it is illegal to have food contact with recycled plastic because it doesn’t get rid of bacteria. Even some nurseries won’t even take pots for potted plants out of recycled plastic because they still contain viruses and bacteria that can harm the plant. So it is not purified in the re-melting/recycling process. So cleaning is very hard, cleaning this stuff is very difficult because the plastic molecule is an open molecule that is very easy to suck up oily substances. That is why it is used in cleaning up oil spills, all those booms you see around oil spills are made up of plastic because plastic will suck up the oil and leave the water. Well in sucking up the oil it sucks up all the associated contaminants so trying to clean that you really have a hard time. We have created this monster and we really don’t know what to do with it.
MA: California’s legislature passed a plastic bag ban, I believe they were the first state to do this in the US. Will this type of activity help?
CM: Every little bit helps. We have got to build awareness that there is a problem in the first place. Most people attack things like the bottle bills and the bag bills as an attack on their convenience, as an attack on their freedom to do as they please and to have these convenient items. That is because they don’t realise the serious consequences of having all this stuff blowing around in the environment. So we have got to build awareness of the seriousness of the consequences of waste plastic getting into the environment by highlighting the most polluting plastic which are the bags, the bottles, and a lot of these insulated food service items such as coffee cups and that sort of thing. You know we don’t have trash compactors in our cars. We should, because people live in their cars, they consume in their cars and there is no place to put the trash so typically the door gets opened and it gets shoved out. People are confronted with waste everywhere, plastic is a space hog because it takes up more room in the landfill than anything else and every time there is an event the trash cans overflow because it is such a space hog. You can’t really provide enough receptacles to safely contain it, it is going to be blowing around on the ground after any large public event. So there are so many problems with dealing with it and banning those things that are the first ones that we see when we do our clean-ups make sense.
MA: What are the other potential solutions?
CM: We have to look at a revolution in design. The product must be designed with end of life in mind. We have to have a circular economy, there must be a pre-cycling premium paid by the producers of this material so that they have an incentive to design it so it is easier to pick up. We can’t just externalise forever the cost of cleaning up pollutants that we make as part of our industrial system. Our industrial system has produced miraculous change in the way humans live, but it is at the expense of the natural world. And if we want to have that non-synthetic habitat exist for ourselves, we don’t have a lot of time because we are turning the entire planet into a synthetic habitat. There are places in the world where people really never get out of a synthetic habitat and never really get to experience anything that could be considered natural. They don’t care because they don’t ever see the natural world as having the value. The value is all part of their synthetic lifestyle. I am very pessimistic because we are creating generations of city dwellers who don’t experience any value in the things that we are screwing up with our trash so they are not incentivised to do anything about it.
This interview was originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview click here.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this discussion reflect the opinions of the participants and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.