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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Airplane Search Sheds Light On Massive Marine Pollution

Captain Charles Moore retrieves plastic debris from the ocean in September 2007. (Algalita Marine Research Institute)

Captain Charles Moore retrieves plastic debris from the ocean in September 2007. (Algalita Marine Research Institute)

A wrinkle in the search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370 has been the mistaking of garbage on the surface of the ocean for possible airplane debris.

The spotting of garbage should come as no surprise. It covers a large segment of the world’s oceans.

Captain Charles Moore has been studying the problem for years. He’s conducted sampling for plastic fragments through more than 40,000 miles of the North Pacific Ocean.

“The ocean is truly a plastic soup, and what we’re calling the croutons are these things that the searchers are finding,” he tells Here & Now’s Robin Young from his home in Long Beach, California.





The ongoing search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370 has been a roller coaster of hope and disappointment, driven by the sighting of debris. And that has reminded the watching world just how much garbage there is in the ocean. We've reported before on the 28,000 rubber duckies that spilled from a container, the giant hairball of garbage the size of Alaska that's floating between California and Hawaii.

Captain Charles Moore has been a leader in sounding the alarm on ocean trash. He's founder of the Algalita Marine Research Institute and skipper of the oceanographic research vessel Alguita. And he joins us by Skype from his home in Long Beach, California.

Captain Moore, welcome.

CHARLES MOORE: Thank you for having me.

YOUNG: And, you know, we've been watching it, we've been seeing it, but from your perspective, I'm wondering what you're thinking as you watch, time after time, search planes think they've spotted a fallen aircraft, and instead, it's a huge piece of garbage. Your thoughts?

MOORE: Well, here we are, looking for somewhere, you know, in the low digits, numbers of debris in a field of debris that numbers in the millions. So not only is it going to be frustrating for those doing the search, it's also sad for the families to think that they have lost their loved ones in what amounts to landfill spread out on the sea.

YOUNG: Well, tell us more about this. You've done studies of garbage in the Indian Ocean. You released a report in 2001 on marine pollution. Just give us some of the numbers.

MOORE: Well, when you are in one of these accumulation zones, like the eastern edge of the Indian Ocean Gyre, this accumulation zone probably has somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 pieces of debris per square kilometer, most of them small. But every square kilometer has a few larger items in it. So, over a million square kilometers, you're looking at a million per - you know, millions of items that are visible to the naked eye from the air, but billions - and probably even higher than that - of smaller chips that all these individual larger items have broken into. As the sun photodegrades them, they get brittle and break apart. So the ocean is truly a plastic soup, and what we're calling the croutons or these things that the searchers are finding.

YOUNG: Well, you concluded that plastic outnumbered plankton in this area of the Indian Ocean. And then we're seeing all these, you know, very huge pieces, 78, 80 feet long. What is it?

MOORE: Well, when you see a 70, 80-foot-long item, it's probably a container. The shipping industry loses thousands of containers, but aren't required to report it. So we really don't know how many are out there. But a certain percentage of those containers contain buoyant objects, which make them float. So you definitely have to be looking - you know, when you see something of that size, you have to consider that - a possibility that may be a shipping container out there. But there is any number of fishing gear-related items out there. And I've even found a toilet seat from Japanese washlet. And I found a cathode ray tube from a television set. I found a floating refrigerator.

Detritus of civilization is the term that I've used, and it includes everything that will float in our waste stream. Now, what we found was that not only, on certain stations, where there are more bits of this plastic than actual planktonic life, and it outweighed the plankton, the actual available food by a factor of six. And this is - got much greater implications than just the difficulty of finding lost debris.

YOUNG: Well, and as you have pointed out, as sad as that is, I mean, it's just - it's such a sad vigil right now, as they try to search - they say needle in a haystack, but as you're saying, it's more needle in a garbage patch, just a terrible image. But remind us why this is happening. Garbage floats for years, but isn't some of it broken down by the sun?

MOORE: It does. But when we say photodegraded or broken by the sun, we don't mean biodegraded. This is not a process in which the plastic disappears. This is a process in which it just becomes fragmented. So it looks like food. But when we study fish in the ocean now, our studies are focusing on the quantity of this that is mistaken and being eaten. And what we're finding is that no matter if it's a tiny fish at the bottom of the food chain or a large whale at the top, they're all getting fooled by this stuff.

Plastic has the ability to be any color and any shape. And food is scarce in the ocean. If something is approximating a food item to a marine species, it's going to consume it.

YOUNG: Yeah. We talked to Loree Griffin Burns. She wrote "Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion." She talked about your study of the Eastern Garbage Patch, this is the three-million ton, what we call a garbage hairball off the coast of California, the size of Alaska. It's just astonishing. And, by the way, we'll link listeners to that interview. But she also talks about how, you know, she describes a monkfish strangled by a fishing net, dead birds cut open and in their carcass full pieces of plastic.

MOORE: Well, those are two of the main ways that plastic waste harms marine life. One, entanglement, preventing normal feeding and movement - migration, even - and two, ingestion where the plastic is mistaken for food. Those two aspects alone account for deaths - sad, gruesome deaths in the millions among marine species every single year.

YOUNG: You know, it's one reason why you're supposed - if you have a six pack of plastic - six pack holder, you're supposed to cut it up, you know, at least before you try to recycle it. But...

MOORE: From my point of view, cutting up a six pack ring is extremely problematic because what you're doing is instead of strangling a bird, you're feeding a fish. Yeah. I'm quite certain that that is not the solution to our problem.

YOUNG: Well, it isn't, anyway, because it's such a small gesture. But what else can people do? I mean, we also talked with Donovan Hohn. He wrote the book "Moby-Duck" about the 28,000 bath toys, the rubber duckies that came out of a container ship and made their way around the world intact for decades. They did not degrade. What possibly can people do about this garbage in the ocean?

MOORE: Well, I'm often asked that question, as you might imagine. And it's got to the point now where I hesitate to give piecemeal suggestions like taking your own cup to the store - the coffee shop - or taking your own bag to the supermarket. While these are all well and good, the problem will not be addressed until we completely change the throwaway society's ethos.

YOUNG: That's Captain Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Institute, speaking to us from Long Beach, California, by Skype. Captain Moore, thank you so much for your good and long work. Thank you.

MOORE: Oh, you're quite welcome. And thanks for the interview.

YOUNG: In other words, he's saying there don't manufacture things unless they're going to have a reuse. Never let them get near the ocean. We'll link you up to his work at hereandnow.org. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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  • Beth Aaron

    Tragedy of mindless proportion that humans have done this because we consider ownership of the earth. Mr. Moore suggests that the food sources in the ocean are “scarce.” That is because humans overfished, and killed most every species that DOES naturally consume fish such as seals, sharks, whales, dolphin. So our species created a net we are trapped in in our holocaust at sea, on land, in the air. Our entire attitude of “Top of the food chain,” is depleting the earth, leaving it a trash dump…. And this we call how we practice our Judeo/Christain beleifs??? STOP eating marine life and hold polluters accountable. If a species is considered invasive threatens all life on earth, as WE DO, how will we deal with ourselves? Vegan is the key to non-violence and sustainable food sources. Every nutrient we get from marine life or farmed animals, they got from PLANT based sources…. This is truly sickening. What are we teaching ?

    • Jim

      Would you please keep your Veganism pseudo religion to yourself. I like to learn based on scientific research methodology, and adjust my behaviors based on that, while ignoring “facts” based on anecdotal happenstance. The latter is how religious beliefs are formed, but have nothing to do with real facts. I hope that in future you will learn to appreciate the difference and not base your behaviors upon hearsay and group think.

      • Beth Aaron

        Scientific FACT is that humans are the most invasive species on earth. Take humans out of any equation and voila, no poisons, no combined substances that kill, no atmospheric GHG to alter the life support system of every species on earth being effected by our arrogant hubris top of the food chain anthropocentrism.
        Don’t even bring religion into this, the manipulated belief system that Gd somehow created all this for humans to exploit, squander, pillage as our own….. I encourage yo, who seems unable to take human responsibility for the environmental crisis we find ourselves in and worsening daily, to read the scientific data of the worst contributor to climate change, animal agriculture. Read the science of how Co2 is being absorbed in the ocean so much, corral reefs are( like humans who are acidic)dying, crumbling, degenerating . But so what, the reefs are only the life support system upon which all marine ecosystems depend… REAL FACTS!! Get a life and stop justifying and excusing yourself from what is happening right in front of your face. Read the science in “Comfortably Unaware,” by Dr. Richard Oppenlander.

        • Beth Aaron

          PS Vegan as a religion would be a MASSIVE improvement over the religions today that are complicit in wiping out CREATION, another word for ENVIRONMENT….

        • Jim

          Is it a form of self loathing to hate your own species so much? Do you ever consider all the beauty of (some) of the human arts? We are an amazing species, that just has a lot to learn. If I had to learn from someone as negative as yourself, however, I do believe that my curiosity would be lessened. You’ll make no converts with your negativity.

          • Beth Aaron

            You mistake truth for negativity as so many do. It allows mainstream to avoid the real truth which is all the beauty I see and that exists, wildlife, insects, bird species, our critical pollinators called bees, who grace me with their visits every late summer to flutter and nourish themselves on my asters, are threatened because of one species alone, HUMAN… Easy to demonize the messenger and negate the message.
            If you have any curiosity at all, see the free film Earthlings and then The Ghost in Our Machine…. Or check out investigations on Mercy For Animals. Dare you call me negative while seeing such a shallow view of the picture unfolding from what we were fed to aspire to, the american dream of consuming …Hell, they even call us consumers….

          • Jim

            You may wish to consider what meat eating has done for our species, and certainly helped to ensure our survival. The evidence suggests that about 1 million years ago, there was a massive change in our diets and that brain size and complexity were the result. Without the concentration of protein that meat provides, we would have got the way of our numerous cousin species who didn’t make that shift. Minus that change we’d probably still be shambling around the edges of the grasslands, trying to eke out a life on a poor nutritive value diet of roots and tubers. Personally I quite enjoy the gains we’ve made in health and longevity, the joy I get every day with my 3 grandchildren. I hope that you will experience those same joys in your long life to come.

          • Beth Aaron

            To predictable. And WOW those canines!!! For ripping flesh. Laughable,( not really) especially in every colon cancer unit or kidney transplant ward.Ever seen a permanent scar down the center of a human chest? Heart disease? TOTALLY preventable. Have you even studied diet and disease. I thought not. I have, for thirteen years.
            If what I see is evidence of what we do with those over-sized brains, yikes…..What a legacy for future generations left an empty and toxic ocean, no topsoil to grow real food, no rain forests to absorb Co2. Very cool use of brainage….Your denial dooms your own grandchildren.

          • Jim

            It’s true that our systems a real compromise, that centered in very quickly developing the art of cooking meat. During the relatively brief period of eating uncooked meat we were exposed to many pathogens, and therefore our immune system is the most sophisticated and strongest of any primate by far. Once past that,and into the era of eating cooked meat, we were able to shorten our colons quite a bit, and thus don’t have that vegetarian big belly. I enjoy eating all kinds of foods, but I’d NEVER eat raw meat! I believe we’re made to eat bits of this and bits of that, in many forms as possible.

          • Beth Aaron
  • Jackie

    This is truly sad. How irresponsible are we? The world we live in should not be taken for granted. All these marine animals are eating this trash! I would like to know if it is possible to volunteer to clean up.

  • Dan Ness

    Congratulations to Robin Young for her intelligent interview of Captain Moore, and most importantly, for once the journalist did an affirmative summation of the interview verifying that THIS interviewee was someone to whom to pay attention for his important message. (Usually, journalists give equal dignity to idiots juxtaposed against the intelligent position and make no indication to the public about which position is the valued one, in a perverted and false idea of “objectivity.”) The disposable society we have created is despicable, and some of us anticipated such problems over 60 years ago when it first started in earnest. Those who raised the alarm in the media at the time were discounted — now, the terrible toll is evident all over the world.

  • Talia

    Why don’t we stop looking
    at this plastic soup as only an ecological problem, but start looking at this
    as a huge source of (free) manufacturing materials? Two Lehigh grads are doing
    this, with their company. Check their story out here. >>>http://www.lehigh.edu/engineering/news/alumni/alum_20131112_sustainability_bureo.html

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