The man who discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is still trying to stop ocean pollution
In 1997, Captain Charles Moore first discovered the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” the largest accumulation of plastic waste in the ocean. Since then, scientists have documented how plastic has permanently damaged marine ecosystems and even altered evolution — and the problem has only grown larger. But Moore and other researchers aren’t giving up hope that we can still save the oceans.
Growing up in Long Beach California, Captain Charles Moore quickly developed a love for the ocean.
Moore’s father was a chemist and sailor who frequently took him and his siblings out on the Pacific. Moore fondly recalls their long conversations about science while they stared out into the water.
“When you get out there and jump in and just see that deep blue going on forever,” he says. “The biggest kind of surprise that you can get as a human being, in terms of knowing the planet that you occupy.”
So it was fate as much as luck that, decades later, it was Moore who discovered the largest-ever accumulation of plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean — what’s commonly known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”
In 1997, Moore was on a sailing trip from Honolulu to Santa Barbara when hurricane winds blew him way off course. He started noticing objects bobbing in the water, like coming across a plastic soup.
Moore started to play a game: Every 10 minutes, he’d come up to the deck to see if he could get a clear view of the ocean without any trash. Unfortunately, he never won.
“So I said, you know what, this has got to be more than just Hansel and Gretel leaving a trail of crumbs just for me to follow home. This is not what it is,” Moore recalls. “This is gotta be a bigger phenomenon.”
What Moore discovered was the first of five large floating plastic debris zones in our oceans. The largest one is estimated to be a 620,000 square mile circle of trash, and all of the zones are increasing in magnitude every day.
Moore went on to found the Algalita Marine Research and Education organization in 1999, and he’s stayed at the forefront of what he calls the “Great Plastics Awakening,” to make people aware of this growing problem.
According to marine biologist and ocean activist Danni Washington (who calls Captain Moore the O.G. of ocean advocacy), an estimated 4-12 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean every year. That’s enough plastic to cover every foot of coastline on the planet.
Despite that, Washington says, “it’s not about doom and gloom.”
“It’s not just about projecting this idea that we’re screwed. We have to design the future that we hope for, where we see equitable and regenerative solutions being brought to the forefront.”
On the KCUR Studios podcast Seeking A Scientist, host Dr. Kate Biberdorf (aka Kate The Chemist) spoke to Moore about his research and what it means for marine life. And Washington shared the latest innovations and efforts to fix the damage that humans are causing to our oceans.
So how do garbage patches form in the ocean?
The average American generates almost five pounds of trash every day. That’s 292 million tons of trash per year.
And in the United States, we only recycle about 35% of that trash. The EPA estimates that we could be recycling up to 75%, but a lot of this waste still ends up in trash bins. And a lot of that waste is plastic.
It takes a long time for plastics to biodegrade — anywhere from 20 years to 500, depending on the type of plastic and how much sunlight it gets.
Because the ocean is downstream from everything, a lot of the plastic waste that we throw out ends up there. Common plastics found in the ocean include polypropylene (from bottle caps and plastic straws), polyethylene (used to make our take-away containers and shampoo bottles), and nylon (often found in plastic toothbrushes and fishing nets).
But it’s not just large plastic objects that we need to worry about. Over time, UV rays from the sun can weaken plastic, causing “photodegradation” to occur. When this happens, the plastic breaks into smaller chunks, sort of like what happens when you drop a champagne flute: the larger glass breaks down into smaller pieces.
Now imagine picking up each of those tiny pieces, and shattering them again. This process repeats on end, until we end up with micro-plastics and nano-plastics in the ocean.
And it’s still uncertain if these smaller pieces of plastic ever fully break down. This process is problematic for tiny marine life that can mistake the plastic for food.
It’s proven especially destructive to plankton — a crucial source of food for larger marine life, as well as the source for nearly half the planet’s oxygen.
All these big and small chunks of plastic come together in places called gyres, which are vortexes in the ocean caused by currents.
“These circulating bodies of water act as accumulators for things that are floating on the surface,” Moore explains. “So those circulating bodies of water happen to comprise 40% of the world ocean.”
Moore has a particular fondness for the North Pacific Gyre, the one responsible for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
He’s returned to the patch several times over the last two decades, often taking crews of researchers with him, and has been shocked by the rapid increase in plastic he’s seen.
It’s so bad, Moore says, that in 2021, the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch outweighed the plankton there by a factor of six to one.
Every year, it is estimated that 100,000 mammals and 1 million seabirds are killed by plastic in our oceans. Dolphins get tangled in nets and can’t come up to the surface to breathe. Albatross eat plastic bottle caps, while whales and sea turtles consume disposable packaging and plastic bags.
To truly understand the severity of the situation, Moore wants people to experience these garbage patches firsthand.
“It can be so calm out there that you can just take a piece of plywood and four inner tubes and pitch a tent on it and just hang out there,” Moore says. “I think adventure tourism has a place out in the garbage patch to really see how this thing is. But part of that is the trip to get there and learning how big the ocean is and how we’ve been able to pollute something that big.”
How is pollution changing marine life?
Twenty years after Moore’s initial discovery of the garbage patch, he stumbled upon something much worse: a trash island.
In the documentary “Sailing the Ocean of Trash with Captain Moore,” there’s footage of Moore walking on Hi-Zex Island, a floating trash mound within the North Pacific Gyre made of bound-up rope, buoys, and an accumulation of garbage.
“I felt like Captain Cook mapping a new island, you know, out in the middle of the ocean,” Moore says.
One of the odd things that scientists have found is that, while the garbage has proved destructive to ocean environments, some species have found ways to thrive within this plastic world.
Below the surface, Moore’s crews observed a tremendous amount of fish — pelagics like mahi mahi, dolphins and rudderfish, all feeding on other species that had gathered.
Just recently, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center documented 484 different species hanging out on the marine debris, the majority of which are usually found on the coast.
“It's not entirely clear 100%, but I will tell you that a big player in the potential success of a species to adapt to environmental changes is how diverse is their genome in their population,” says Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado, executive director for the Stowers Institute for Medical Research. (Disclosure: the Stowers Institute financially supports KCUR’s podcast Seeking A Scientist.)
Sánchez Alvarado says that genome diversity is a lot like the makeup of your hand in a game of cards. If you have all aces, and you're playing a game where aces can’t be played, then you’re out of luck (i.e. the species becomes extinct). But if you have a range of cards, your chances of being able to make a move are way better – these species survive.
Sánchez Alvarado says this genetic diversity helps species adapt more willingly to new situations. The ones who don’t, likely die off and disappear forever.
One example of a species that seems well suited for environments polluted by humans are killifish -- which are sort of like the celebrity fish of toxic waters.
There are over 1,200 different types of killifish, and different variations have found novel ways to adapt to their specific environments. The Atlantic killifish on the eastern coast of the United States has been exposed to bad industrial pollution, but seem to be thriving nonetheless.
Meanwhile, killifish have been found living in a sulfur-rich spring in Mexico, despite extremely low concentrations of oxygen. Another killifish group was sent to space and learned how to swim under weightless conditions. And when their sibling eggs hatched, they too could swim without gravity.
For comparison, when goldfish were sent to space, they started to swim in a looping pattern and appeared to be miserable.
“That's what genetic diversity is all about,” says Sánchez Alvarado. “It's exciting to see, you know, how species are adapting… But at the same time, I know that comes at a cost and that there are gonna be some things that we don't understand might disappear before we understand them. And therefore, there may be a sense of loss, at the end of the day.”
So what can be done?
What’s clear is that the worsening pollution in the ocean will end up with winners and losers — which will have lasting consequences far beyond the water. Danni Washington says that to tackle this growing problem, plastic consumers, producers, and scientists all need to step up.
“It’s just a matter of collective vision. It’s about innovation, it’s about creativity,” Washington says. “Bringing all these different ideas and minds and backgrounds and experiences to the table so that we can come up with the best solution possible.”
“We have a lot of work to get there,” she adds.
At this point, a complete ocean clean-up of all the micro-plastics and nano-plastics would be nearly impossible.“If you tried to clean up less than 1% of the North Pacific Ocean, it would take 67 ships one year to clean up that portion,” says Diana Parker, who works on the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program.
“And the bottom line is that until we prevent debris from entering the ocean at the source, it's just going to keep congregating in these areas. We could go out and clean it all up and then still have the same problem on our hands as long as there's debris entering the ocean," she says.
But Washington says there are still a lot of things we can do to mitigate the situation.
“When it comes to plastic pollution entering the ocean, 80% of it is coming from land-based sources,” says Washington. “So that means that we have an opportunity to intercept those pieces of plastic before they enter the water.”
On top of local and individual efforts, a few non-profit organizations are stepping onto the scene. The Ocean Cleanup has gained some notoriety on social media by building high tech “interceptors,” which are positioned at the mouths of polluted rivers and harbors and funnel floating trash onto a conveyor belt.
The Ocean Cleanup reports that 80% of the plastic that enters the ocean comes from 1% of the rivers on Earth. As of today, their interceptors have removed about 5 million pounds of trash from waterways.
Another, more adorable solution is Mr. Trash Wheel, which is especially effective after big storms. With 5-foot googly eyes and powered by hydro- and solar energy, the semi-autonomous interceptor hangs out in harbors and collects trash — it can gobble up to 38,000 pounds in a day.
Washington’s favorite is The Great Bubble Barrier, which was designed by a Dutch startup company. It uses air to create a bubble curtain that prevents plastic from moving beyond a point, pushing trash (but not marine life) into a catchment system.
Outside of the ocean, there are exciting innovations coming from scientists who are working to make plastics that are more biodegradable.
Like research out of the University of Sydney, which recently discovered two fungi that can break down a type of plastic in about four and a half months. There’s also been some success with a corn-bioplastic that can break down in two-three months.
Another promising result involves using an invasive brown seaweed to create a biodegradable replacement for plastic wrap.
But Washington also knows that to protect the ocean, humans need to keep plastic out of the water in the first place.
To that end, Washington is working towards a “Universal Declaration of Ocean Rights” that is being presented to the United Nations General Assembly in September.
“I think it's so important that no matter what walk of life you're on, no matter what you do, you can get involved,” she says. “The ocean is our life source and it requires everyone to contribute.”
Where can I hear even more about this topic?
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This episode was produced by Dr. Kate Biberdorf, Suzanne Hogan and Byron Love, edited by Mackenzie Martin and Gabe Rosenberg, with help from Genevieve Des Marteau.
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