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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.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
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.