What Capt. Moore wants you to know about plastic

January 23rd, 2012
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Capt. Charles Moore, discoverer of the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," dons a necklace made out of plastic debris by Hawaii Island artist Noni Sanford, who combs Kamilo Beach.

Capt. Charles Moore, discoverer of the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," dons a necklace made out of plastic debris by artist Noni Sanford, who combs Kamilo Beach on Hawaii island. Photo by Nina Wu..

Capt. Charles Moore, author of "Plastic Ocean" (Avery, $26) has dedicated his first book "to the generation, not yet born, that creates a world where plastic pollution is unthinkable."

Moore, 64, is far from retiring from his life's mission — to educate the public about the dangers of the "plastic soup" he first stumbled upon in the North Pacific Gyre in 1997. While most media have referred to him as the discoverer of the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," he prefers to call it a "plastic soup" as a more accurate description of the broken-down bits and pieces of plastics as well as abandoned fishing nets floating below and above the surface of the ocean.

At the time, he was shocked by the amount of plastic litter in the ocean (seven successive days, over 1,000 nautical square miles) but didn't realize then that plastic was toxic, or "bio-active," with potentially harmful effects on human health.

His research vessel, the Alguita, has since returned to the Gyre numerous times to collect more data as well as to far corners of the world to document the extent of plastic dispersed in our ocean. In 2014 (the 15th anniversary of his discovery), Capt. Moore will return and spend a month to study a "plastic coral reef."

Capt. Moore carries a pouch of plastic debris collected from Kamilo Beach on Hawaii island.

Capt. Moore carries a pouch of plastic debris collected from Kamilo Beach on Hawaii island.

Moore carries a pouch of "plastic sand" — broken down bits of plastic that have been ingested by marine mammals and wash back up on Hawaii's shores – to show people what it is. The plastic debris is driven by the currents in particular towards Kamilo Beach on Hawaii island and Kahuku Beach on Oahu.

He also has some examples of bottles that have been chewed on (what looks like the remains of a shampoo bottle, top of a cleaning bottle, tube of insect repellent as well as a piece of plastic improperly incinerated and then thrown back out into the ocean). Plastic bottle caps are also very common.

"Plastic garbage does not belong in the ocean any more than sharks  belong in municipal swimming pools," says Moore in his book. "Plastic is like an invasive species. Once established, it doesn't go away..."

Moore met co-author Cassandra Phillips at a zero-waste meeting on the Big Island, where he lives part-time. He was looking for mulch, and she was looking to collect different types of recycled plastic for orchid pots. In 2006, she received grant funding from the USDA Small Business Innovation and Research program to study recycled plastics as an orchid growth medium.

While talking, they decided that Moore should write a book. Moore has written articles for scientific journals and been in several documentaries, but this is his first book.

Here is more of my conversation with Moore last week (after he spent the morning at a beach cleanup at Kahuku with the Kokua Hawaii Foundation's Plastic Free Hawaii and Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii) and before a book reading at BookEnds in Kailua.

Q: What made you decide to write this book?

A: I felt the urgency of alerting people to this danger because it is an imminent danger in a lot of different ways, not only to species in the ocean, but to us as a species.

Q: To our health?

A: Very much so. It's all around us. We wear it, we drive in it, we get our food delivered in it, we make our children's toys with it and feed them with it...We entered the Plastic Age in 1979 when plastic surpassed steel as a manufactured item... We're living in the Plastic Age, but we haven't really had the plastic conversation...It turns out plastic has properties that make it bio-active and we're just now discovering some of the effects of that...I'd been thinking I needed to get this out there (in a book)...

Q. Some may read your book, and some may not, but if there's anything you want the public to know, what would it be?

A: That we've entered the Plastic Age, kind of silently, and it's causing a lot of problems with our health and the health of the environment. And we desperately need to have a plastic conversation. We need to discuss where it belongs because it's in a lot of places it doesn't belong (like the ocean) and us...including those chemicals that are in us: BPA (Bisphenol A) and phthalates...

Q. Is your message reaching people?

A: Little by little, we're gaining traction...A Japanese translation (of the book) is coming out in August. I'll be touring Japan in August and September.

Q. So if we can't go out and vacuum plastic out of the Pacific Gyre from a practical point of view, what can we do about the plastic problem?

A: Stop putting it in...Packaging from the mainland is a large concern. Those companies that sell you things in the island do not take back the packaging. They make your municipal government handle all that waste. People wrap it in plastic to make sure it comes here in a pristine state...Imagine if an island demanded that products that came to the island had a take-back infrastucture, a container filled back up with pallets of packaging on its way back. That's what we need to do...Local consumption is the key, I believe, to stopping this plastic monster and getting it out of the ocean because you don't have to wrap taro or locally produced papayas in plastic...I'm an advocate of what I call a regional reliance inventory — that we make everything we need to rely on to live here, so people can get things locally, for energy use, food, clothing and basics.

Q: Part of this is your concern for future generatons.

A: Absolutely...It doesn't appear as if any trophic level is immune...every sized organism is eating plastic, including a whale that washed up dead on a West Seattle beach with surgical gloves, plastic bags and golf balls [in its belly]...No part of the pyramid is immune.

Broken down pieces of plastic, including a shampoo bottle, tube of insect repellent and improperly incinerated piece of plastic.

Broken down pieces of plastic, including a shampoo bottle, tube of insect repellent and improperly incinerated piece of plastic.

Capt. Moore is the founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. To read more about the Foundation's work, visit www.algalita.org. To see a full schedule of Capt. Moore's book tour, click here.

A total of 274 volunteers collected more than 3,600 pounds of trash from the James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge and Kahuku Beach, where ocean currents "spit out" the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Photo courtesy of the Kokua Hawaii Foundation.

A total of 274 volunteers collected more than 3,600 pounds of trash from the James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge and Kahuku Beach, where ocean currents "spit out" the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Photo courtesy of the Kokua Hawaii Foundation.

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