Charles J. Moore, a captain in the US merchant marines and founder of the Algalita Marine Research and Education Institute, recently returned from a six-week research trip at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. He wrote in the New York Times that what he saw during his voyage shocked him.
Moore, who has made ten of these trips to the Great Pacific, one of five major garbage patches drifting in ocean waters near the equator, said the increase in the quantity of plastic waste since his last trip in 2009 was “enormous.”
“Plastics of every description,” Moore said, “from toothbrushes to tires to unidentifiable fragments too numerous to count floated past our marine research vessel Alguita for hundreds of miles without end.” He said there was even a floating island of plastic buoys used in oyster aquaculture “that had solid areas you could walk on.”
Plastic is ubiquitous in everyday life. It can be found in some form in nearly every product that we use, and it is now one of the most widely found pollutants of ocean waters worldwide.
“Pushed by winds, tides and currents, plastic particles form with other debris into large swirling glutinous accumulation zones, known to oceanographers as gyres, which comprise as much as 40 percent of the planet’s ocean surface — roughly 25 percent of the entire earth.”
The currently exists no comprehensive way of recycling the plastic garbage that makes its way out to sea, and there is a lot of it.
“In a 2010 study of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers,” said Moore, “my colleagues and I estimated that some 2.3 billion pieces of plastic — from polystyrene foam to tiny fragments and pellets — had flowed from Southern California’s urban centers into its coastal waters in just three days of sampling.
Moore said that he and his team “suspect that more animals are killed by vagrant plastic waste than by even climate change,” and that “only by preventing synthetic debris … from getting into the ocean in the first place will a measurable reduction in the ocean’s plastic load be accomplished.”
He applauded efforts by environment and conservation workers to clean up debris from beaches, but said that no matter how technologically advanced their “sieve-like skimmers they use” will not be able to clean up the giant garbage gyres.
“The real challenge is to combat an economic model that thrives on wasteful products and packaging, and leaves the associated problem of cleanup costs,” Moore said. “Changing the way we produce and consume plastics is a challenge greater than reining in our production of carbon dioxide.”
Nearly 100 municipalities in California have banned throwaway plastic bags, and a statewide ban is currently under consideration by the state Senate. But Moore concluded by saying that until “we shut off the flow of plastics to the sea, the newest global threat to our Anthropocene age will only get worse.”