Garbage In, Garbage Out
When a single swath of ocean contains more plastic than plankton, the simple act of taking out the trash becomes a grueling scientific challenge.
By Susan Casey
Art by Maarten Brinkman
Fate can take strange forms, and so perhaps it does not seem unusual that Captain Charles Moore found his life’s purpose in a nightmare. Unfortunately, he was awake at the time, and 1300 kilometers north of Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean.
Returning to Southern California from Hawaii after a sailing race, Moore had altered the course of the Alguita, his 15-meter catamaran. Veering slightly north, he had the time and the curiosity to try a new route, one that would lead the vessel through the eastern corner of a 13-billion-hectare oval known as the north Pacific subtropical gyre. This was an odd stretch of ocean—“the doldrums,” sailors called it—a place most boats purposely avoided. So did the ocean’s top predators: the tuna, sharks, and other large fish that required livelier waters flush with prey. The gyre was more like a desert—a slow, deep, clockwise-swirling vortex of air and water caused by a mountain of high-pressure air that lingered above it.
The area’s reputation didn’t deter Moore. He had grown up in California with the Pacific literally in his front yard, and he possessed an impressive aquatic résumé: deckhand, able seaman, sailor, scuba diver, surfer, and finally captain. Moore had spent countless hours on the ocean, fascinated by its vast trove of secrets and terrors. He’d seen a lot of things out there, things that were glorious and grand, things that were ferocious and humbling. But he had never seen anything nearly as chilling as what lay ahead of him in the gyre.
It began with a line of plastic bags ghosting the surface, followed by an ugly tangle of junk: nets and ropes and bottles, motor-oil jugs and cracked bath toys, a mangled tarp. Tires. A traffic cone. Moore could not believe his eyes. It was as though someone had taken the pristine seascape of his youth and swapped it for a landfill.
How did all the plastic end up here? How did this trash tsunami begin? What did it mean? If the questions seemed overwhelming, Moore would soon learn that the answers were even more so and that his discovery had dire implications for human—and planetary—health. As the Alguita glided through the area that scientists now refer to as the “eastern garbage patch,” Moore realized that the trail of plastic went on for hundreds of miles. Depressed and stunned, he sailed for a week through bobbing, toxic debris trapped in a purgatory of circling currents. To his horror, he had stumbled across the twenty-first-century Leviathan. It had no head, no tail. Just an endless body.
“Everybody’s plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.” This Andy Warhol quote is emblazoned on a two-meter-long magenta-and-yellow banner that hangs—with extreme irony—in the solar-powered workshop in Moore’s Long Beach home.
Since his first encounter with the garbage patch 12 years ago, Moore has been on a mission to learn exactly what’s going on out there. Leaving behind a 25-year career running a furniture-restoration business, he has created the Algalita Marine Research Foundation to spread the word of his findings. His tireless effort has placed him on the front lines of this new, more-abstract battle. After enlisting scientists to develop methods for analyzing the gyre’s contents, Moore has sailed the Alguita back to the garbage patch several times. On each trip, the volume of plastic had grown alarmingly. The area in which it accumulates is now twice the size of Texas.
At the same time, all over the globe, there are signs that plastic pollution is doing more than blighting the scenery; it is also making its way into the food chain. Some of the most obvious victims are the dead seabirds washing ashore in startling numbers, their bodies packed with plastic: things such as bottle caps, cigarette lighters, tampon applicators, and colored scraps that, to a foraging bird, resemble baitfish. (One animal dissected by Dutch researchers contained 1,603 pieces of plastic.) And the birds aren’t alone. More than a million seabirds, 100,000 marine mammals, and countless fish die in the North Pacific each year, either from mistakenly eating this junk or from being ensnared in it and drowning.
Moore soon learned that the big, tentacled balls of trash were only the most visible signs of the problem; others were far less obvious and far more evil. Dragging a fine-meshed net known as a manta trawl, he discovered minuscule pieces of plastic, some barely visible to the eye, swirling like fish food throughout the water. He and his researchers parsed, measured, and sorted their samples and arrived at the following conclusion: by weight, this swath of sea contains six times as much plastic as it does plankton.
This statistic is grim for marine animals, of course, but even more so for humans. The more invisible and ubiquitous the pollution, the more likely it will end up inside us. And there’s growing—and disturbing—proof that we’re ingesting plastic toxins constantly and that even slight doses of these substances can severely disrupt gene activity. The fact that these toxins don’t cause violent and immediate reactions does not mean they’re benign: scientists are just beginning to research the long-term ways in which the chemicals used to make plastic interact with our own biochemistry.
In simple terms, plastic is a petroleum-based mix of monomers that become polymers, to which additional chemicals are added for suppleness, inflammability, and other qualities. When it comes to these substances, even the syllables are scary.
To take just one example, we deploy annually about 450 million kilograms of chemical compounds called “phthalates”—despite the fact that California recently listed them as chemicals known to be toxic to our reproductive systems. Used to make plastic soft and pliable, phthalates leach easily from millions of products—packaged food, cosmetics, varnishes, the coatings of timed-release pharmaceuticals—into our blood, urine, saliva, seminal fluid, breast milk, and amniotic fluid. In food containers and some plastic bottles, phthalates are now found with another compound called bisphenol A (BPA), which scientists are discovering can wreak stunning havoc in the body. We produce nearly 3 billion kilograms of BPA each year, and it shows: BPA has been found in nearly every human who has been tested in the United States.
Most alarming, these chemicals may disrupt the endocrine system—the delicately balanced set of hormones and glands that affect virtually every organ and cell—by mimicking the female hormone estrogen. In marine environments, excess estrogen has led to Twilight Zone-esque discoveries of male fish and seagulls that have sprouted female sex organs.
This news is depressing enough to make a person reach for the bottle. Glass, at least, is easily recyclable. You can take one tequila bottle, melt it down, and make another tequila bottle. With plastic, recycling is more complicated. Unfortunately, that promising-looking triangle of arrows appearing on products doesn’t always signify endless re-use; it merely identifies which type of plastic the item is made from. And of the seven different plastics in common use, only two of them—PET (labeled with #1 inside the triangle and used in soda bottles) and HDPE (labeled with #2 inside the triangle and used in milk jugs)—have much of an aftermarket. So no matter how virtuously you toss your chip bags and shampoo bottles into your blue bin, few of them will escape the landfill—only 3 to 5 percent of plastics are recycled in any way.
“There’s no legal way to recycle a milk container into another milk container without adding a new virgin layer of plastic,” Moore says. He points out that, because plastic melts at low temperatures, it retains pollutants and the tainted residue of its former contents. Turn up the heat to sear these off, and some plastics release deadly vapors. So the reclaimed stuff is mostly used to make entirely different products, things that don’t go anywhere near our mouths, such as fleece jackets and carpeting. Therefore, unlike recycling glass, metal, or paper, recycling plastic doesn’t always result in less use of virgin material.
What’s more, “Except for the small amount that’s been incinerated—and it’s a very small amount—every bit of plastic ever made still exists,” Moore says, describing how the material’s molecular structure resists biodegradation. Instead, plastic crumbles into ever-tinier fragments as it’s exposed to sunlight and the elements. And none of these untold gazillions of fragments is disappearing anytime soon: even when plastic breaks down to a single molecule, it remains too tough for biodegradation.
Ask a group of people to name an overwhelming global problem, and you’ll hear about climate change, the Middle East, or AIDS. No one, it is guaranteed, will cite the sloppy transport of nurdles as a concern. And yet nurdles, lentil-sized pellets of plastic in its rawest form, are especially effective couriers of waste chemicals called persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, which include known carcinogens such as DDT and PCBs.
The U.S. banned these poisons in the 1970s, but they remain stubbornly at large in the environment, where they latch on to plastic because of its molecular tendency to attract oils.
The word itself—nurdles—sounds cuddly and harmless, like a cartoon character or a pasta for kids, but what it refers to is most certainly not. Absorbing up to a million times the level of POP pollution in their surrounding waters, nurdles become supersaturated poison pills. They’re light enough to blow around like dust; to spill out of shipping containers; and to wash into harbors, storm drains, and creeks. In the ocean, nurdles are easily mistaken for fish eggs by creatures that would very much like to have such a snack. And once inside the body of a bigeye tuna or a king salmon, these tenacious chemicals are headed directly to your dinner table.
One study estimated that nurdles now account for 10 percent of plastic ocean debris. And once they’re scattered in the environment, they’re diabolically hard to clean up (think wayward confetti). At places as remote as Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, 3,380 kilometers northeast of New Zealand, they’re commonly found mixed with beach sand.
In 2004, Moore received a $500,000 grant from the state of California to investigate the myriad ways in which nurdles go astray during the plastic manufacturing process. On a visit to a polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipe factory, as he walked through an area where railcars unloaded ground-up nurdles, he noticed that his pant cuffs were filled with a fine plastic dust. Turning a corner, he saw windblown drifts of nurdles piled against a fence. Talking about the experience, Moore’s voice becomes strained and his words pour out in an urgent tumble: “It’s not the big trash on the beach. It’s the fact that the whole biosphere is becoming mixed with these plastic particles. What are they doing to us? We’re breathing them, the fish are eating them, they’re in our hair, they’re in our skin.”
Though marine dumping is part of the problem, escaped nurdles and other plastic litter migrate to the gyre largely from land. If that polystyrene cup you saw floating in the creek doesn’t get picked up and specifically taken to a landfill, it will eventually be washed out to sea. Once there, it will have plenty of places to go: the North Pacific gyre is only one of five such high-pressure zones in the oceans. There are similar areas in the South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean. Each of these gyres has its own version of the garbage patch as plastic gathers in the currents. Together, these areas cover 40 percent of the sea. “That corresponds to a quarter of the earth’s surface,” Moore says. “So 25 percent of our planet is a toilet that never flushes.”
Our oceans are turning into plastic—are we? Wrist-slittingly depressing, yes, but there are glimmers of hope on the horizon. Green arch-
itect and designer William McDonough has become an influential voice, not only in environmental circles but also among Fortune 500 CEOs. McDonough proposes a standard known as “cradle to cradle” in which all manufactured things must be reusable, poison-free, and beneficial over the long haul. His outrage is obvious when he holds up a rubber ducky, a common child’s bath toy. The duck is made of phthalate-laden PVC, which has been linked to cancer and reproductive harm. In the United States, it’s commonly accepted that children’s teething rings, cosmetics, food wrappers, cars, and textiles will be made from toxic materials. Other countries—and many individual companies—seem to be reconsidering.
Thanks to people like Moore and McDonough, awareness of just how hard we’ve slapped the planet is skyrocketing. None of plastic’s problems can be fixed overnight, but the more we learn, the more likely that wisdom will eventually trump convenience and cheap disposability. In the meantime, let the cleanup begin: The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has investigated using satellites to identify and remove “ghost nets,” abandoned plastic fishing gear that never stops killing. (A single net recently hauled up off the Florida coast contained more than 1,000 dead fish, sharks, and one loggerhead turtle.) New biodegradable starch- and corn-based plastics have arrived, and Wal-Mart has signed on as a customer. A consumer rebellion against dumb and excessive packaging is afoot.
The gray plastic kayak floats next to Moore’s catamaran, Alguita, which is birthed in a slip across from his house. It is not a lovely kayak; in fact, it looks pretty rough. But it floats, a sturdy, two-and-a-half meter two-seater. Moore stands on the Alguita’s deck, hands on hips, staring down at it. On the sailboat next to him, his neighbor, Cass Bastain, does the same. He has just informed Moore that he came across the abandoned craft yesterday, floating just offshore. The two men shake their heads in bewilderment.
Watching the kayak bobbing disconsolately, it is hard not to wonder what will become of it. The world is full of cooler, sexier kayaks. It is also full of cheap plastic kayaks that come in more attractive colors than battleship gray. The ownerless kayak is a lummox of a boat, 25 kilograms of nurdles extruded into an object that nobody wants but which will be around for centuries longer than we will.
And as Moore stands on deck looking into the water, it is easy to imagine him doing the same thing 1200 kilomters west, in the gyre. You can see his silhouette in the silvering light, caught between ocean and sky. You can see the mercurial surface of the most majestic body of water on earth. And then, below, you can see the half-submerged madhouse of forgotten and discarded things. As Moore looks over the side of the boat, you can see the seabirds sweeping overhead, dipping and skimming the water. One of the journeying birds, sleek as a fighter plane, carries a scrap of something yellow in its beak. The bird dives low and then boomerangs over the horizon. Gone. ❧
Susan Casey is editor in chief of O, the Oprah Magazine. This story is adapted from an article that originally appeared in Best Life.