Plastic Soup in the Ocean

How a sea captain’s chance discovery launches a determined quest to save the oceans

“It was and is a thin plastic soup, a soup lightly seasoned with plastic flakes, bulked out here and there with ‘dumplings’: buoys, net clumps, floats, crates, and other ‘macro debris,’” writes Capt. Charles Moore.

He was recalling the first time he noticed what is now called The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The patch is located in an itinerant area of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California known as a gyre and characterized by high atmospheric pressure, with little or no wind and calm seas. He concludes, “Other people had seen what I saw, but I hadn’t a clue of this. Looking and seeing are two different things, just as thinking something’s wrong is a ways away from trying to make a wrong right.”

After first noticing this debris across a thousand miles of ocean in 1997, Capt. Moore began plans for a return trip to quantify the extent of the problem. In 1999, he assembled a scientific team that randomly sampled 3-foot wide strips of the ocean’s surface and found that micro-plastic bits outweighed plankton by a ratio of six to one. This showed the potential for plastic ingestion begins at the very lowest rungs of the food chain.

In their book, Plastic Ocean: How a Sea Captain’s Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans, Moore and his co-author, Cassandra Phillips, combine two narratives. The first story is that of plastic in our modern economy, including how it evolved and grew into something that permeates every facet of life. The second thread is more of a detective story. It follows Capt. Moore as he collects data, references other people’s research, and forms alliances to combat the increasing quantity of plastic debris in the marine environment.

The authors provide a whirlwind tour of “rock oil” and its by-products. As whale oil became expensive and scarce, crude oil and its derivatives were seen as a potential replacement to serve the illumination and lubrication needs of the 19th century. Some of these by-products made natural rubber more elastic and useful. Later, entirely synthetic products were produced from oil. By the early 1920s, 8.8 million pounds per  year of Bakelite, an early plastic, found its way into electrical insulators, automobiles, home appliances, pens, and jewelry.

But, according to Moore, “This story has never been only about plastics. It’s about an epic shift from austerity and frugality to abundance and profligacy.” He documents the “Invention of Throw-Away Living,” a process that started during the Second World War and accelerated through the 1950s and ‘60s. Plastic products were cheap, durable, and lightweight, perfect for packaging and disposable products. “With disposability comes litter,” says Moore, “litter being errant eyesore garbage.”

Moore was not the first to study marine debris and its effects on wildlife. He reviews findings from the 1960s documenting that marine mammals, turtles, and many seabird species are frequent victims of entanglement and/or ingestion of plastic. While these events are tragic and provide the kind of photographic images that can stir public opinion into action, Moore connects the dots that show potential danger to our food supply. He cites evidence that plastics can act as sponges, soaking up toxins. If plastic particles outnumber plankton, the lowest rung of the food chain, then those particles are eaten by larger organisms which commonly consume plankton. These creatures are, in turn, eaten by even larger animals. Eventually, these particles and any toxins they may carry will be consumed by the species we find on our dinner plates.

“The base of the marine food chain is is being displaced by a non-digestible, nonnutritive component that is actually out-weighing and in some cases out-numbering the natural food.” This is the message Moore carried to the world in the decade  after initial publication of his research in the Marine Pollution Bulletin in 2001. Later trips to the Pacific revealed the ratio of plastic to plankton can range higher than the six to one ratio observed in 1999. In 2009, it was 26 to one. Moore writes, “Our plastic footprint may be causing more immediate harm to sea creatures than our ‘carbon footprint.’”

Check back next week to learn about Captain Moore’s tips to reduce plastic use and waste!

Photo Credit: Photo of Captain Moore addressing youth at a summit courtesy of Algalita.

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