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SSU “Friend of the Earth” Charlie Moore, Gyre Researcher, Speaks on 15 Years of Findings During Earth Month

Moore's Study Area

Since he began studying plastics in the Pacific Ocean in 1997, the amount of plastic in the ocean has doubled. Gyre researchers the world over are finding 1 piece per square meter, Moore told an audience at Salem State University on April 11, 2012 as he was honored as a “Friend of the Earth.”

Moore spends weeks at a time on a wind-powered research vessel slowly pulling a manta trawl. He collects and analyzes debris found in the top 20 cm of the Pacific Gyre and he has been to all the major garbage patches—the widespread debris fields of the North Atlantic and Indian Oceans, the concentrated gyres like the North Pacific.

The proof is in Moore’s petri dish. It’s “toxic synthetic drift,” he said; “It’s a compound nature can’t digest.” About 90 percent of the ocean plastics are dispersed throughout the water column. Plastic makes its way to the gyre because a ferocious amount of it is bursting from urban areas all over the globe, or it travels far down the Earth’s great rivers. Or, it’s dumped directly into the ocean as disposal. He has the pictures to prove it.

The problem, or challenge if you are looking from the vantage point of the “Plastic Makes it Possible” camp, is that plastic has no after life. The world’s currents simply carry it all to debris fields in every ocean. Plastic is free to spend an eternity lollygagging and creating mayhem.

Petri Dish from 5 Gyres

Petri Dish from 5 Gyres

Supply and Recycling

In the U.S., we make more plastic than steel—“it’s ubiquitous in our lives,” said Moore. Plastic is the solid state of petroleum, so it never biodegrades. However, plastics break down, releasing a cocktail of chemicals. Some mimic estrogen, others are carcinogens like DDT.

When it comes to recycling, we “downcycle” plastic, he said. The melting point of plastic is the challenge—it’s a lot lower than the temperature needed to kill bacteria. We can’t recycle plastic into food containers.

Moore said food safety law prohibits use of recycled plastic for food containers without a liner. Once materials are fused, packaging is no longer recyclable. Plastics that are recycled can only be used in “lesser” products, like plastic decking and park furniture. He showed how such products are inferior, cracking with pressure and warping with heat.

According to Moore’s recycling colleagues, we’re only recycling “diddly point squat” of plastics—55 percent of all plastic is single-use. We’re the “Throw Away Society,” he said, showing us a 1955 Stackpole image. The market is calling for it.

“Recycling is not taking care of the problem,” Moore said.

Plastic as Predator

Moore’s research shows an ocean covered in plastic. There are floaters, sinkers, and bits awash in the water column. His three main findings are:

  • Filter feeders are consuming the smallest amount of plastics, and thus plastic is being assimilated into the food chain, causing illness and death.
  • Plastic sinkers are altering the benthic environment—screwing up our carbon sinks.
  • There’s also the chemicals (DDT, BPA, etc…) found in the plastic bits that parade through the water column. Animals eat and plants filter the chemicals, too.

“We’ve fundamentally changed the nature of the ocean,” Moore said. He’s seen a 6th fold increase in the plastic to plankton ratio.

Water and drink bottles like to sink while the caps like to float. Plastic floaters dupe avian creatures, killing them by busting their guts. Birds, like the incredible Laysan Albatross, eat the caps, burst, and die. Moore had pictures of the stashes found at the scenes of such crimes—multiple bottle caps, lighters, and plastic bits. The albatross seems to prefer the reds.

Plankton, jellie fish, and crill gorge on plastic bits and assimilate them. Sea Turtles eat these lower species and the plastic that remains blocks their digestive tracts, and they die. A local blue fin tuna distributor told me recently that although he hasn’t seen it often, whole tuna have been lost because plastic had assimilated to the prize’s interior meat. It’s a case of “plastic as predator”—these animals have “no tools to discriminate” plastic from food. Our fishing industries should be concerned.

Further, the feminizing of our marine populations is a global concern. Small testes and even males exhibiting female sex organs occur due to the estrogenizing bisophenal A (BPA) and other chemicals that dissolve out of plastic. Chemicals accumulate in the plastic bits. When the animals consume them, they become “poison pills,” he said.

Plastics Industry Manufactures Doubt

“Plastic is extremely bioactive,” he said, pointing out that low doses of chemicals like BPA can have effects not predicted by high dose studies. He warned us to be wary of greenwashing and science that supports greenwashing. “Manufactured doubt,” he called it.

When I checked out the “Plastics Make It Possible” industry website, I can see what Moore means in Professor Plastics FAQ . She leaves out a lot of information on the answer to the question, Can any plastic soda bottles be recycled back into their original containers? The information leads one to believe a half-truth. I wanted to comment, but alas, that feature is not available on this pro-plastic industry site.

CSBWR Water Canteen

Water Canteen Borrow Program by WaterWiseSalem.com

Changing the Tide

A few asked what can we do and some made comments to me after that they wish he would provide some hope for action. I asked if he found that his research resulted in any changes, and he did say that he was able to get some Southern California plastic companies to “better steward their feedstocks.” Their process water release permits allow direct release of plastic nurdles—the most basic plastic component.

“We pollute because it’s economical to pollute,” Moore said.

After the program, I told Moore about Citizens for Salem Beverly Water Resources Water Canteen and Butt Bin Borrow Programs and the Salem Sound Coastwatch Adopt a Beach program. He was very encouraged. He and I, and Executive Director of Coastwatch Barbara Warren agreed that he’d work from his side and we’d work from our end. “we’ll meet somewhere in the middle,” I said.

For more about Moore’s research go to Algalita.org or 5Gyres.