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January 30, 2012 / Dr. Toad

Charles Moore — Plastic Oceans

Last Wednesday, Captain Charles Moore was speaking downstairs at Town Hall. The event was sold out, and when I showed up about fifteen minutes before the starting time, there was a line of people outside in the wind and rain who, like me, hadn’t thought to buy a ticket in advance and were now listening to a nice young lady telling them/us that “it’s not looking good”. An anoraked girl looking about twelve years old stood patiently in line in front of me as her parents waited in a car parked nearby, darting out occasionally to give her a hug. I wondered what that scene meant for the question of the engagement of the younger generation with science and environmentalism. But I couldn’t dwell on that too long because we were told again that there weren’t any seats left, and then a woman behind me tapped on my shoulder and gave me her ticket because her date didn’t have one, and they opted to spend the evening together not listening to the sad story of plastic garbage circling in our oceans. If I were a decent human being, I would have passed my new treasure onward to the little girl in the anorak, but I hesitated only for a moment before a couple of convenient excuses (I only had one ticket, they were three in that family; I was going to write about it) propelled me firmly through Town Hall’s doors and into a filled room of about 350 people (very rough estimate).

Captain Moore, who sported a dapper black tie outfit, was introduced by City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, co-sponsor of the plastic bag ban and the Yellow Pages opt-out legislation in Seattle, who the audience applauded.

Then Moore started talking, and what can I say? The stuff he has to say is as important as it is depressing.

We worry about point-source pollution: the BP oil spill, the tsunami that destroyed Northern Japan and washed back tonnes of debris. But every day non-point-source pollution: plastic bottles and plastic bags, nurdles (pre-production microplastic pellets — I learned a new word!) and packaging peanuts, nylon fibers from washing my fleece and from fisherman’s nets — amount to a tsunami’s worth of garbage that all ends up in one of the worlds’ “garbage patches“. Captain Moore, back in 1997, discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is twice the size of Texas. (Texas isn’t a very good unit of measurement, says Moore. It’s got irregular borders.)

Ocean currents and patch zone

What happens to all that garbage? Some of it floats and becomes a habitat for all kinds of sea creatures including, I kid you not, corals and reef fish. The most prevalent kind of deep sea fish that you’ve never heard of — lanternfish —  come up to the floating surface at night to feed on caulking tubes and triggerfish hang out on pieces of debris that float just beneath the ocean’s surface. The food-mimicking plastic is often small enough to eat, but too large to pass, and so it stays lodged inside the fish’s stomachs, sometimes killing them all at once, other times just making them less adaptive in the long run: slowing them down with extra weight, preventing the stomach space from being used for real energy conversion, sapping the fish’s energy leading to starvation or predation. Predation, by the way, means that tuna, dolphins and whales end up with plastic in their diet too.

The plastic soup is invisible to most sailors. It’s not on the surface, it’s just below it. But drag a bag on a line behind your boat and you’ll find plastic particles, big and small, but mostly small, inside every sample you take. According to Moore, plastic outnumbers plankton 6 to 1 in the garbage patches, by weight. He brings up a slide with a marine food web illustration. It’s missing a crucial piece of information, he says. Plastic should be in that daigram, as both prey and predator, for it’s consumed, and it kills. It decomposes eventually in the blood of fish and releases measurable toxins. So kids, don’t eat fish with plastic in its stomach, if you can help it. And by the way, while we’re on the subject of blood, did you know that there are 150 different compounds in our bloodstream, the human blood, that were unknown before 1950s? I don’t know how to verify this number or this statement. But Popular Science writer Arianne Cohen screened herself for 150 artificial compounds, with interesting results about what our “new normal” is.

Marine debris on Hawaiian coast (NOAA)

Pictures of Hawaiian beaches fouled by plastic debris and eel fisheries in Korea producing said debris were pulling up one after the other. Yes, the pristine waters off the coast of Hawaii are carefully cleaned, regularly, by divers working in shark-infested environments, but really cleanup can’t be the only solution. Many tons of garbage hits Hawaii annually.

And then there’s the deep-ocean plastic, the stuff that sinks to the bottom, filled with water and sand, and threatens to create an impermeable layer on the ocean floors that would prevent it from sequestering carbon.

You know, I’m running out of patience with this subject. It’s all very real and eminently observable, should you choose to observe it. The question really is: what are we going to do about this problem, beyond covering our eyes and ears and pretending that nothing’s happening?

This is when Moore’s talk stops being about science and starts being about activism. The transition is abrupt, but falls squarely within the logic of reason. If the evidence presents you with a picture of the world that you find problematic, you are compelled to try to address the causes of the problem. Are you? If so, don’t drink bottled water, don’t use plastic bags and wraps, reuse and recycle (although plastic is difficult to recycle) and support the regulation of mariculture and the development and adoption of cradle-to-cradle recycling technology.

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