Meet Captain Charles Moore: the man that discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Every so often, one gets the chance to meet people that touch your heart and mind like Captain Charles Moore – the ocean defender that in 1997 discovered the biggest trash island known to humans - the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We exchange words about insidious nanoplastics, ocean mythology, ghost fishing, and plastic as the ‘lubricant’ of globalization that is making our hyper convenient culture possible. A material that is odor-free, light, durable and makes the world economy as we know it spin around. The captain concluded that the plastic crisis can only be averted by focusing on holistic solutions, such as localism and zero-waste design strategies. Moore is also the founder of Algalita, an inspiring organization empowering young people to solve the plastic pollution crisis, and will be speaking at our Universal Sea symposium on August 12th!
A conversation between Captain Charles Moore and our content writer Tina Ateljevic.
TA: What have you been up to, Captain Moore?
CM: I am excited, getting ready for a big voyage to the Garbage Patch. We will be meeting up with The Swim. There are people that are into extreme sports and want to do crazy things. Ben Lecomte wanted to swim across all the oceans, so he started from Japan swimming to Hawaii and when he found plastic in the ocean every day, the team switched their focus from breaking records to doing research on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. He is going to swim through the Garbage Patch at the time we are there so we are going to meet up with them. It goes to show how the world has become focused on activism over extreme sports. Extreme sports are a distraction over what really needs to be our focus, which is saving the planet.
TA: I am fully with you on that one. I come from a beautiful Croatian island where I get the impression that the plastic washing up on the shores is increasing every year despite plastic pollution awareness campaigns. Am I crazy?
CM: Yes, it’s on the increase. The petroleum companies are shaking in their boots because of the speed at which solar and wind are overtaking the fuel industry so they are pushing with all their might, to create more plastics.
TA: So you are saying that amidst this plastic waste crisis, petroleum companies are increasing their output of plastic production?
CM: Oh yes. Exponentially. A dramatic increase. And it’s because they are being forced to use the petroleum for things other than fuel. Historically, plastic was just a tiny sidelight for them.
TA: That is fascinating, especially in the light of the recent uproar against plastic.
CM: The movement is mainly focused on single-use plastics. Packaging is about 50% of what plastic is used for and its used one time only. All environmental movements obey the rule of going after the worst first; whatever part of the environment you are worried about, you go after the worst offender first. The worst offender in terms of plastics, is the single-use plastics, although there are many other offenders.
TA: Who are the other big offenders? Can you talk about the fishing industry?
CM: It’s almost getting to the point where fishing gear is single-use. It’s so cheap now. They have fished out the coastal fisheries to a large degree so international fleets are going into the deep ocean to raid that and the most effective way to raid the ocean is to put a bunch of trash out with a marker buoy attached and a transmitter that transmits its position, and then leave for a while to go set some more of those up. Then we have a whole series of what we call ‘FADs’ or ‘fish aggregation devices’ because in the deep ocean anything fixed becomes a food web. The small fish hide there and that attracts the large fish. Then these big boats come and put a big net around this FAD and draw it in and catch all the fish out of the ocean. All they care about retrieving is the transmitter and the fish. So an expedition just went out and got over 50 tons of these discarded nets tangled up with trash from the boats, which these guys are throwing together to make these fish attraction devices.
TA: Are you saying that the fishing industry is deliberately dumping trash in the ocean to attract fish?
CM: Yes, it doesn’t matter if it’s a deck chair with a broken leg or a cooler that has a broken lid. Whatever you can tie together and make float out in the middle of the ocean works. There are some fisherman that make FADs out of bamboo in Ecuador for example, but they still combine those with plastic too.
TA: You have developed the world’s first protocols for sampling ocean plastic, can you tell me why this is important?
CM: When scientists are struggling to give data to policymakers, the policymakers often have problems because the data comes in different forms or protocols. So what they want is a standard protocol accepted across the board so that when there is a debate they are not debating apples versus oranges, but comparing the same thing. That is why it’s important that data is reported using a standard methodology.
We have a pretty good methodology for microplastics but we are working on the nano-sized plastics – the things that we’re breathing and eating in our seafood, honey, salt, beer and I’m sure in our wine as well. These tiny particles of plastic have not gotten the kind of standardized protocols that are needed and so the state of California has asked our group and our collaborators to come with one of those protocols for the nanoplastics. So now we’re working with a group in Germany that makes little pills with a certain amount of plastic in each pill and then you dissolve it in water and you see if the different labs come up with the same analysis. That way we get a methodology for plastic in drinking water, which is now a very big concern.
TA: There has been alarming research emerging recently about humans from all over the world ingesting these nanoplastics. Is your team behind this nanoplastics research?
CM: When I started out, I was the lone voice. There were only two other scientists that had done this kind of work. Now there are thousands of people doing this work.
I have synthesized research from different groups into one paper called ‘Invasion of the Biosphere by Synthetic Polymers’ published in the official journal of the Chinese Society of Oceanography, as I wanted the Chinese to be aware if this issue too.
TA: Tell me more about how you started doing this important work?
CM: I started Algalita in 1994, but its focus turned to plastic in 1997 when I discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
TA: You are off on another expedition to the patch soon and you have embarked on several expeditions since then. What are the key motivations for going out there and what are the changes that you have encountered?
CM: We want to find out more about the nanoplastics so we are going to take water samples as well as plastic samples in the nets. We want to extract the large pieces of plastic because every big piece of plastic eventually turns into these nanoplastics, which are the most insidious, and that’s what’s invading the entire biosphere. Spider webs used to be the only matter that would be light-weight enough to be swept up by winds into the upper atmosphere. Now that upper atmosphere is full of plastic, just like the ocean and the land is becoming completely contaminated by plastic.
So we’re focused on ocean research and we’re taking water samples to look at how plastic is invading the biosphere but we also want to get out the larger pieces so we’re working with satellite imagery and we’re taking drones with us so that we can compare the images we’re getting from the drones up a few hundred meters to images focused from a satellite at the same time to see if they can see these big pieces. A lot of people are putting trackers on the big ‘ghost nets’ (another term for ‘FADs’) – a net that continues to fish after the fisherman is gone. It’s ghost fishing. Ghost fishing is a big problem. In some areas, derelict gear kills 10% of the target species. In addition to raping the ocean, the derelict gear is continuing to kill and so we want to find ways to track it and get it out.
We also do research on the Myctophids, those are the fish that live out in the deep oceans. They are lantern fish and makeup 50% of the fish biomass. The ocean is so vast that the most common fish on the planet is unknown to most people. It’s a solitary fish and lives its life in darkness and only comes to the surface to feed at night. We found that they eat a lot of plastic. They are the base of the food web along with squid. These two species are the reason why the salmon leave the rivers to go out and feed. We are concerned that they are transmitting plastic to the food web as well as the fact that we’re lessening the fitness of the most common fish in the ocean and if it crashes, it crashes all the other species.
TA: It is said that the ocean is the origin of life. What does this really mean for us?
GM: The ocean is downhill from everywhere. It used to be that the ocean cured all evils. When sacrifices were made in ancient Greece, to cleanse the sacrificial entity it was dipped in the ocean. Whatever was evil, including sewage, it was assumed that the ocean was so vast that it could take it. But when you have 7-10 billion people on the planet, all of them exploiting planetary resources and discharging waste, the ocean is now filling up with our waste. So, the ocean as the origin of life means that the decline of ocean life is the first signal of the decline of life. It’s the fact that we are like bacteria on a petri dish; you can only grow a certain amount and then you start to kill yourself through your own feces. The excrement of civilization is also plastic and it’s gotten to the point where it’s affecting essential planetary systems and its showing up first in the ocean.
TA: What do you think can get us out of this plastic crisis?
CM: There is no reason for optimism but the trends that I like to point out are based on localization. The Locavore movement. The Tiny House movement. The regional reliance inventory where you try to rely on products in your region. Those initiatives can reduce packaging, create community and lessen your carbon footprint. Organizing for self-sufficiency at the local level is the trend that I would point to that is the most likely to lead in the right direction, however, this is happening very slowly. The average person is tied to the global transport of goods system and if by any reason, which sooner rather than later will happen, our resources are cut off, rioting in the streets will become more frequent over issues of resources. I’m not a survivalist. But it makes sense to have a resilient community on a scale that is not subject to disruption by world events and I don’t think we’re talking enough about that.
TA: Plastic and globalization are highly intertwined.
CM: I call plastic the lubricant of globalization. It’s what allows you to make a product in Sri Lanka, package it and have it arrive in a pristine condition in NYC. It’s a moisture barrier, a vapor barrier and it keeps things clean and non-corroded. Plastic is how you get this model of making everything made by the cheapest possible labor force in the cheapest possible area and simply transporting it to where it’s consumed. I don’t think that’s a sustainable model.
TA: What are your thoughts on plastic recycling?
CM: At the end of the day, our movement believes in zero-waste. Everything is a resource waiting for recovery. There is a myriad of ways in which we can recover resources. There is no such thing as a non-usable material but that has to be designed if it’s going to be recycled. You can’t make a bunch of very difficult to reuse materials and have that be a viable model. Zero-waste requires foresight. It requires input at the design level and we are not seeing that because what drives markets is uniqueness and plastic facilitates a unique shape, color, and design for your product. All this instant investment in the new is facilitated by plastic and that has to be reined in. I don’t think that the current system of economic growth at the fastest possible rate, can rein in plastic waste. I believe that we need to have a more rational and circular type of economy with planning.
TA: You are the founder of Algalita, a marine conservation organization working to educate and empower young people on ocean plastic pollution. Why are you focused on young people?
CM: They are both the victims and the agents of change. They are the victims of the status quo and the agents of radical change. The issue is that they don’t see the system as a whole subject to change, instead, the system appears as a given when it is, in fact, a historical system that was created in history by historical forces and they have the power to harness historical forces for change. But as long as they continue to be enthralled by the bells and whistles of the system and don’t see it as a whole that has to be changed, then they will continue to be its victims.
TA: Thank you for this inspiring conversation. I hope to meet you in person one day if I decide to row from Croatia to California petroleum-free!
CM: I’m an advocate for sail transport. I believe that goods in the future will be transported by sail and there are many things that don’t have to be there tomorrow. Sail transport, I think is the transportation of the future. We can load the boat up with wine, coffee, and chocolate and start sailing!
Meet the Captain and other inspiring environmental thought leaders at our Universal Sea symposium and exhibition in August, get your tickets here!
- Tina Ateljevic