A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week's top international news stories.
In this month’s environmental outlook: the looming perils of plastic pollution. Captain Charles Moore has been credited with discovering what’s commonly referred to as “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” On a voyage in 1997, he took a detour between Hawaii and California and ran into an atmospheric phenomenon known as the doldrums. Becalmed for more than twenty days, he noticed plastic littering an immense section of the northeastern Pacific Ocean. And now, more garbage is on the way. Scientists estimate up to 20 million tons of debris from Japan’s tsunami is making its way toward Hawaii.
- Charles Moore a sea captain, pollution expert, activist and founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. In 1997, Captain Charles Moore was sailing between Hawaii and California when he made an unexpected discovery, a growing collection of plastic debris that has since been dubbed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Captain Moore is an internationally-recognized pollution expert, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. He joins me in the studio for this month's Environmental Outlook.
MS. DIANE REHMWe examine the effects of so much plastic on fragile ocean eco-systems. He's written a new book titled "Plastic Ocean." Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, Captain. It's good to have you here.
CAPTAIN CHARLES MOOREGood morning, Diane.
REHMI gather you were not the first to notice this phenomenon.
MOOREWell, it had been theorized by an oceanographer, Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer, that there was an accumulation zone there and mariners had had trouble with debris that crossed there, especially sailing vessels. But the extent of the problem was not fully understood until I actually went out there and measured it.
REHMAll right, now give us a picture of it.
MOOREWell, that's the problem. You can't take a picture of it. If we could take a picture of it, we wouldn't have any problem describing it. But satellites are too high and the ocean is too rough. The reflectance of the ocean makes it great for measuring wind speed from a satellite because the light reflection changes as it gets rougher, but that inhibits the ability to see into the water. And most of this stuff is just lazily floating under the surface and not visible from satellites so we really can't do a good job taking a picture of it.
MOOREAnd then, when we think of the size of the ocean, any wide-angle lens could never capture a 1,000 mile diameter circle and show tiny plastic fragments floating in it. So we really have trouble assessing the size of it and assessing its photographic qualities, but it is there. It's there in the sense that as we trawl a net through it, we capture tiny particles in quantities approximating one per square meter. A million pieces per square kilometer is not uncommon.
REHMNow, we have photographs from your book on our website, tell me about of these photographs.
MOOREWell, what we try to illustrate are the consequences of the debris and the quantities of the debris. The quantity we illustrate by showing what comes in what we call the cod end or the collection bag of our trawl net. It's a third of a millimeter mesh and it has an aperture of about a meter wide by about 20 centimeters deep.
MOORESo it's very good at skimming the surface of the ocean and collecting whatever is there. And we dump that out into a Petri dish and photograph the contents and what it looks like is just a constellation, a nebula of small plastic fragments. So those are the particles that constitute the plastic soup as we call it.
MOOREWe also then photograph creatures that have ingested these plastics. We've photographed small fish, the myctophids, with a tremendous number of these particles inside their stomachs. So we compare that to the natural food as we do with the albatross chicks, comparing the plastic that has been regurgitated into the chick by the parent bird with the natural food which would, you know, the residue of that would be squid beaks and squid eyes and some fish bone.
MOOREBut invariably we see a tremendous quantity of plastic far outweighing the natural food in the stomachs of these baby birds. So a photograph of their stomach contents is highly revealing.
REHMWhat kind of plastic are you talking about?
MOOREAh, floaters. In this instance, we're talking about floaters. That'll be your polyethylenes and your polypropylenes, what they call the olyphenes. They're the most common consumer plastics. The soap bottle that you squeeze your detergent out of is going to be your polyethylene and the bottle cap on your soda bottle or your water bottle is going to be the polypropylene. Those are the two most common floaters out there and constitute the plastic soup.
REHMNow, I have heard other people describe the width and the breadth of this plastic as being the size of the state of Texas.
MOOREThe state of Texas is a very poor unit of measurement. It doesn't have even borders and really is just -- when people think of Texas, I think what they think of is something big.
MOOREAnd it's big, but really what we have to think of when we think of this scientifically is what are we going to use as the criteria for a garbage patch? Is it going to be 10,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer? Is it going to be 100,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer? Is it going to be a 1,000,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer? That will define how large of an area is impacted.
MOOREFrankly, it's not too hard to find any place in the ocean that doesn't have 10,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer. Most all of the central north Pacific is going to have more than that floating in it.
REHMNow you made this voyage in 1997 and you got caught in what's called the doldrums. Describe the doldrums and how you found yourself there.
MOORESure, the equator is hot and hot air rises so the equator is the heat engine that creates these high pressure systems because what does high pressure mean? It simply means a mountain of air that the heated air rises, is displaced by cooler air and it moves in. And this hot air as it is pushed and moved toward the poles creates a high peak and that peak is the center of a high pressure system.
MOORENow, air has a weight so this high pressure system, this mountain of air is pushing down on the ocean's surface and creating a slight depression there. And that is the toilet bowl effect. That's where we see these vortexes, what I call a gentle maelstrom pulling, scouring the Pacific Rim bringing the debris from the Pacific Rim into these central cells that kind of hold it there, not permanently, storms rinse through and push it out.
MOORESo it's not as if it's there forever, but many pieces can be there for decades. And these high pressure systems are called gyres. These currents that circulate in a clockwise direction in the northern hemisphere constitute the North Pacific Gyre. And the center of these where that air is pushing down gently in the center, that's pretty darn calm, that's the doldrums. And that's very stable in the northeastern Pacific so we have an area called the Horse Latitude so named because in the early days of trade with sailing vessels, the cargo of livestock would often be jettisoned when they were caught.
MOOREThey had no more water to feed these animals and they were pushed over so they became the Horse Latitudes, the area where if a sailor was unlucky enough to be caught, he would have to jettison his cargo so this is the doldrums. This is where the ancient mariner was caught in the "Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
MOORESo we found there's a new aspect to these doldrums and that is the calm allows these neutrally buoyant plastics that are just slightly lighter than seawater to float up to the surface. And that's why when I came on deck cruising through this in '97, I couldn't spend any time at all surveying the sea surface without seeing some little shard bobbing by.
MOOREAnd this is what bugged me.
REHMNow you made a similar trip back in 1961. You saw nothing of this?
MOOREYeah, my family was a sailing family and we sailed -- the family as a whole sailed, me as a 14-year-old, in 1961 to Hawaii and not a single item of trash littered the ocean at that time. We would see derelict fishing buoys occasionally, a Japanese glass fishing float and you might see a bit of lumber or something float by, but certainly not the kind of plastic plague that we have now, which is just I think the most common surface feature on the ocean today.
REHMAnd the plastic, of course, is coming from everywhere.
MOOREIt's non-point source pollution which means we can't identify any one generator. Yes, shopping malls, fast food restaurants, yes, fishing boats, yes. And in the 1980s, before the treaty against dumping plastic in the ocean, cruise ships, navy vessels still may be dumping because of the difficulty in coming back to port and finding disposal facilities.
MOORESo there's dumping going on. There's accidental discharge going on. There's urban runoff bringing this stuff from the rivers down into the ocean. We've got a problem on our hands here in which we're all implicated. There are no guiltless parties so the solution is going to be international and worldwide and involve everyone on the planet and that's what makes it so dicey getting to the heart of it.
REHMAnd it's so difficult for this plastic to disintegrate?
MOOREIndeed. We've developed a plastic compound, a polymer, which nature can't digest. It's a triumph of technology because it's a vapor barrier and a moisture barrier and allows goods to be packaged in such a way that they arrive in a pristine condition at the marketplace. One need not worry when one's goods are wrapped in plastic that they will have somehow deteriorated naturally during their travels.
REHMBut what we've got to find is a way to safely dispose of them or else perhaps turn to something else. Captain Charles Moore, he's the author of a new book titled "Plastic Ocean: How a Sea Captain's Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans." Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email. Join us on Facebook or Twitter.
REHMAnd if you've just joined us, Captain Charles Moore is with me. He is a sea captain who discovered the -- who knows how much plastic in the ocean and has written a book about it. The New York Times calls Captain Moore a hero, the first person to have pursued serious scientific research by sampling the garbage patch. We'll open the phones in just a moment. Here's an email. "Does it make sense to have globally imposed taxes on plastics sufficient to clean the oceans of harmful plastics?"
MOORENo. And the reason is you can't clean the ocean of harmful plastics no matter how much money you spend. It's too vast. The idea that the ocean is somehow like a big lake and that we're just going to go out there and scoop this stuff up and bring it back in is a fantasy the landsmen have who haven't sailed across the vast expanse of the ocean. The ocean is the largest habitat on earth. Its average depth is two miles.
MOORENinety percent of this plastic is mixed into the mixed layer maybe 50 meters below the surface at ten knots of wind. So, you know, you've got this huge area mixing the plastic down into itself. Trolling it for tiny particles would remove the life along with the plastic. We find, you know, in some cases more plankton than plastic, in other cases more plastic than plankton. So you've got this blend of impossible to distinguish good stuff and bad stuff. And you're not going to be able to find a technological fix for it. So we can't throw money at the problem.
MOOREHowever, it does make sense to tax in order to keep the plastic out of the ocean. That makes a lot of sense. We've got to have a take back infrastructure. We've got to eliminate the concept of waste because plastic is valuable. We go to a lot of trouble to make plastic and it has a lot of important uses. So let's not put it in the ocean.
REHMWell, what would -- I mean, is there some other material that you think we could begin to gradually turn to?
MOOREYeah, but I also think we have to gradually turn away from the concept of throwing things away. There is no more away. Landfills are filling up. They're not a good place to put resources. What we really need is resource recovery. We're leaving the age of extraction and entering the age of reuse and we need to provide for that reality. So taxes are a good way to create infrastructure. That's the function of government is to kick start these necessary innovations so that we have this infrastructure to take things back into the industrial economy.
REHMSo you're saying recovery of these plastics. How would you go about doing that?
MOOREWell, I'm not talking about recovering from the ocean although I do think there's...
REHMNo, I understand that.
MOORE...there is a place for that perhaps with the tsunami debris.
MOOREAnd we'll talk about that later, I'm sure.
MOOREBut now, we're talking about this issue of how to keep it out of the ocean in the first place, because really we're going to have to let the ocean spit it out. And she'll never spit it all out unless we stop putting it in. So let's let the ocean have a chance to heal itself. Let's let the ocean have a chance to spit this stuff out onto the beaches and get it off the beaches. But we're not going to troll the great ocean for plastic and...
REHMIsn't that interesting because here's a Facebook comment from Philip, "Why can't the Japanese skim the ocean and clean up the tsunami mess? They have a navy or at least whaling vessels that the government can commission, can't they?"
MOOREAnd indeed so do we. And I think one might excuse the Japanese people for not running after their trash shortly after the tsunami. They have a lot bigger problems on their hands.
MOOREAnd I can certainly understand, although that would have been the time for international cooperation in that regard. The ability to remove the debris was greatest from the sea shortly after the tsunami.
MOOREAnd it would've been the time for the navies of the world and the researchers who have these prototypes for getting plastic out of the ocean to go do it. And the time for action is -- was immediate. But nevertheless, we still -- there's still time for action. And those who have proposed cleaning up the gyres need to get their prototypes out there now. Because they need to protect the longest coral reef reserve in the world, the one declared by President Bush.
MOOREOver 1500 miles of the northwest Hawaiian Islands are now a marine sanctuary, a national park. This is something that has pristine corals that will be impacted by enormous waves during the winter time. We go to Hawaii to surf the biggest waves in the world. Now where the winter's coming, the tsunami debris' approaching, it's only 200 miles from this national treasure and we need to do something about it. So anyone who can should. And it, of course, includes the Japanese and it includes our own resources. And anyone else who can muster equipment to get out there can begin finding this stuff. Because such a huge amount came, hasn't had a chance yet to fully disperse and there would be the opportunity to protect some of these very sensitive coral reef habitats.
REHMWe have an email from Eileen of Wildlife Watch who asks about balloons.
MOOREYou know, balloons are a scourge and yet they're a symbol of freedom for the graduates releasing the balloons after graduation. I see a line of them all the way from Los Angeles to Mexico in June after graduations, because they symbolize the -- leaving the nest, the freedom to go off into the world and become your own person. And one is really a killjoy if one seeks to limit this practice, even though we've suggested that doves, butterflies, ladybugs could be released instead. The balloons get messages printed on them and get sent off into the air where they come down -- I've found them hundreds of miles offshore in the ocean. They're confused for food, especially by turtles and eaten. And the ribbons are never going to biodegrade.
MOORENow, I'm hopeful that the polyhydroxyalkanoate, the PHA developed by a Boston -- actually a Massachusetts company, Metabolix, will be able to penetrate the balloon market. Since we're not having any luck fighting the balloon lobby and stopping these releases, the next best thing is to make this stuff marine degradable. And there's only one plastic now that has promised as marine degradable, and that is this PHA plastic, which is still going to serve the purposes of many plastics being, you know, temporarily an air and moisture barrier. But will serve as a balloon for the purposes of the release but then degrade in the ocean. So...
REHMHow far along are we in the creation of that into use?
MOOREIt's been created. It's in the marketing phase now. The problems are in getting mass quantities of this stuff so you have a firm permanent supply to give to the market. But that's what the company's working on. It's working on creating this new feedstock which will be in pellet form, just like regular plastics that the molders can mold. The blow molders can make it into the balloons. We can make a lot of things out of it but still it needs to be emphasized. Marine degradable is not equivalent to marine disposable. We don't want to dispose of things in the ocean.
REHMAnd yet how much is of what you find in the ocean traceable to the industrial sector?
MOOREAbout 10 percent of the -- by count of the plastics that we find in the ocean are the preproduction plastic pellets. Study has been done on remote beaches in Hawaii which have no plastic manufacturing plants anywhere nearby. And if you count up the little bits of plastic that wash up on the beach, about 10 percent of them will be these little plastic pellets, these things called nurdles. They're little plastic resin beads.
REHMNurdles. I see. Yes.
MOOREAnd they're the best way to ship a solid. They go into the railcars with vacuum hoses, they come out nicely and go into silos just like a grain would. And then they're molded into products in the plastic factory. So these new plastics, these biodegradable plastics -- and biodegradable does not mean marine degradable. There's PLA plastic which will degrade in a compost pile, but it's not warm enough or dense enough of biological activity in the ocean to degrade the PLA.
REHMIf nothing more were thrown into the ocean, how much of what is there now -- how long would it take, what's there now, to degrade?
MOOREWell, Dr. Sylvia Earl an authority and known as the foremost woman oceanographer has said that if Columbus sailed to America with plastic dinnerware we'll still be finding traces of it on the beaches of the Atlantic. So we're looking at half a millennium anyway before this stuff gets degraded in the ocean.
REHMAnd with more being poured in every day.
MOOREWe're seeing incredible pictures out of Indonesia, the Citarum River mouth. The rivers and streams are flowing solid plastic into the ocean. As we globalize this plastic throw away lifestyle and encase everything in plastic we are creating a plague on the ocean.
REHMYou've talked about this Northern Pacific gyre. Are there others?
MOOREAs a matter of fact, these high pressure areas over the ocean comprise 40 percent of the world ocean. They're in the temperate latitudes corresponding roughly to where deserts are in the terrestrial environment. So there're oceanic deserts, area of calm winds, warm sun and low biological productivity. And 40 percent of the world's ocean is approximately equivalent to the entire land surface area of the globe. So what we're talking about here is sea fill the size of which boggles the mind. It's equivalent to all the land on earth.
REHMWe have many callers. I'm going to go to the phones now. First to Baltimore, Md. Good morning, Holly, you're on the air.
HOLLYGood morning, thank you. I would like to go back to a comment, something that was said earlier in the discussion about these marine degradable plastics. Are they petroleum based? And if so, what about the possibility of nonpetroleum-based plastics?
MOOREActually, no. The partnership that Metabolix has with Archer Daniels Midland is for their corn syrup. And they're feeding their organisms sugar from corn. And what they do is they starve them after a certain point and then it's a stress reaction to put on this PHA as a reserve. And so they're able to do it with -- now to get up to speed they're using traditional agricultural feed stocks which do use a lot of petroleum. But they're hopeful that as their technique improves, they'll be able to switch to switchgrass.
REHMCaptain Charles Moore. We're talking about his adventures, his interests and his new book titled "Plastic Ocean: How a Sea Captain's Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And here is a call here in Washington. Good morning, Will.
WILLHello. I know there's been an effort, not just through the teaser for this show, but in a number of media stories, to link the persistent plastic problems, which you've been talking about to the post 3/11 tsunami debris field with the number, you know, 20 million tons possibly coming our way. I just wanted people to understand that as alarming as that number is more alarming should be the fact that we don't know where those numbers come from. There are no government studies underway, no university pieces out there trying to estimate the volumes. None of that work has happened.
WILLOur total research to the moment has a great university researcher at University of Hawaii Nicole (word?) who asked a Russian tall ship who was on its way back across the Pacific, more or less, if you're going that way please take pictures and send it to us. And that's what's generated the current or the media wave, but that there's an alarming lack of understanding of what is coming our way.
MOOREThat's absolutely true. I mean, imagine trying to weigh a city that is washed into the sea and then determine of that how much would float. And of that determine how much would become part of this tsunami wave. You know, extremely difficult calculations to make. Nevertheless, the Russian tall ship did begin seeing debris rather soon after it left Midway Island and reported steady reports -- daily reports, TV sets, all kind of things they were seeing out there, boots they reported. And had an area of highest concentration they reported, which is listed on Dr. Max Minco's (sp?) website, an area where they determined the largest amount that they saw which would be a good target area if you were going for a cleanup.
MOOREAnd then, there was a further discovery of an actual boat which they hauled up onto the deck of the ship. So it's not as if we don't have a good model for where this stuff is going. We do have a good model. What we don't have is the expertise to predict where this stuff will have the greatest accumulation, where you get the biggest bang for the buck when you go out and try to retrieve this stuff.
MOOREThat's what's been the crux of our government's efforts. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has tried to get scientists to model these, what they call mezzo scale eddies that bring this stuff to the surface and hook it up together. That's where we're headed but we're not there yet. But nevertheless I do believe the time to act is now. It's going to do nothing but get more dispersed.
REHMWell, I'm glad you called. Any further comment?
WILLOnly that it's not a plastic debris problem we're talking about. We're talking about a disaster scale volume of material that is likely to contain plastic debris like you're talking about, woody debris from construction material, derelict vessels of unknown size and composition. The one that the Russians saw was a little small one, but we don't know how many others there are or how big they are, whether they're hazards to navigation, you know, what the public safety threat is.
WILLHow much of this is medical waste which cannot be combined with other waste for disposal? There's just -- the questions are numerous, the answers are almost none at this point. And there's been very little response in terms of -- other than sort of volunteer efforts from people with no funding.
MOOREYeah, I agree that it's time for national efforts beyond volunteerism. And all Dr. Max Minco's been able to call for is people to volunteer their resources and try to do something about this problem. But frankly it's bigger than the volunteer effort can handle.
REHM"Plastic Ocean" is the name of the book. Captain Charles Moore is the author, a sea captain who has launched a determined quest to save the oceans. Short break and right back.
REHMAnd we're back. Captain Charles Moore is a sea captain. The New York Times has dubbed him a hero, the first person to have pursued serious scientific research by sampling the garbage patch that is infecting and infesting our oceans. 800-433-8850. Let's go now to Houston, Texas. Good morning, John. You're on the air.
JOHNGood morning. Thank you.
JOHNI've been sailing the Pacific Ocean for the past 20-some years, back and forth between China, the Islands and California. And a number of us out there have always heard about this garbage patch out in the middle of the Pacific, but none of us have ever seen it. And we've pretty much gone up and down every latitude due to different weather conditions, but we've never seen this garbage patch.
MOOREWhat's the height of your deck off the water?
JOHNOh, probably 100 feet.
MOOREYeah, well, see I'm six feet off the water. And so I see these little things floating by, but when we talk about a garbage patch, we're not expecting you to see things touching each other. We're not expecting you to see a mat of trash on the ocean. What we're talking about is maybe one piece per square meter and, at that, maybe the size of a quarter or smaller or a little larger. That's predominately what's out there.
MOORESo you get out up 100 feet off the water, it's really tough to see this stuff, but, yeah, I mean, you're not saying …
JOHNWell, I'll been through the Mediterranean and it's really obvious. You know, you go through the Straits of Gibraltar and that is really bad there, but …
JOHN… in the middle of the Pacific, it's relatively clean. I mean, you see some flotsam and jetsam now and then, but nothing that you'd call a garbage patch.
MOOREYeah, well, that's a very good point. You don't need a gyre to create a mess in the Mediterranean because you've just got a tiny little outlet. So, yeah, anything that gets thrown into the Med is gonna get stuck there. And you've got an older civilization, you know. Asia just came on board with embracing the consumer lifestyle in the last decade. So they're just starting to generate more of this stuff.
MOOREBut, yeah, Pacific's a much bigger place. The stuff's much more dispersed. And I'm not surprised that you haven't seen what it would call a patch. That's what's wrong with the term garbage patch. It's not a patch.
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling, John. Here's an email from Ann in Virginia, who says, "The tiny particles of floating plastic provide the single largest incubator of infant ocean life."
MOOREYeah, this is a new form of proliferation of ocean life, however. These hitchhikers that are hitchhiking on plastic are not the normal denizens of that zone. We see oysters and muscles from shoreline habitats in Asia migrating to shoreline habitats in North America. We see tropical reef fish.
MOORENow, what we've actually done is created an artificial floating coral reef in the middle of the ocean. I’m able to find frogfish out there, variegated tilefish, Hawaiian Sergeants. These are fish you typically see around islands. Now, the habitat is such that there's enough coral out there for coral reef fish to be hanging out in the middle of the ocean. This is likely to persist so that although you may get greater biomass -- and this is not unusual in situations of pollution where you have greater biomass, you have lesser species diversity. So scientists estimate that if you have total biotic mixing, if we have all these hitchhikers hitchhiking on this plastic debris and mix it all up into the ocean we'll lose about half of the species diversity in the ocean.
REHMAll right. To Louisville, Ky. Good morning, Luther.
LUTHERI'm wondering, are we going to be having to try to filter microscopic particles or molecules out of our drinking water in a few years?
MOOREIt's very likely that we're not yet focused enough on the lint from our washing machines. Studies are being done showing that the lint that's showing up in the sediments, which is translated into the filter feeders, like the clams and mussels, is coming from our washing machines to a large extent. So yeah and these tiny particles translate into the circulatory system of these organisms and eventually into the tissue. So there's no question, but if it's small enough and it makes it through the water treatment process, whatever it might be where you're drinking the water, it could then be consumed and become part of your body.
REHMBut now wait a minute. Go back to the lint from the washing machine. I take the lint from the dryer, the lint that accumulates in the dryer and throw that into the trash receptacle.
MOOREAnd that may be 80 percent of what the lint is in your wash, but that other 20 percent that's in the rinse water goes out with the rinse water.
REHMI see. I see. Oh, dear. All right. Let's go to Baltimore, Md. Good morning, Sean.
SEANYeah, hi. I did that same trip back in '97 on Bay Wolf, Santa Cruz 50. And I remember as we were going across the ocean seeing just vast amounts of trash. I did the same trip again in '98, saw the same thing. And again this summer in 2011. And once again, it looked pretty much the same, but I'd definitely like to thank you for bringing that to the world's attention.
MOOREWell, I appreciate that. You know, we've been back, too. We went back in 1999, the original survey. And then went back in 2008 in the wintertime to see if it was different in the winter. And then went back again in 2009, ten years on and did the same sample design. And you know we found six times as much plastic as plankton by weight, that's zooplankton, not all plankton, just animal plankton.
MOOREAnd in averaging the 2008 survey and the 2009 survey we got 36 to 1. So it may have seemed to you like it was the same, but based on our research it's increased by a factor of six.
REHMSean, let me ask you what kinds of steps are you taking to try to stop plastic from getting into the ocean?
SEANWell, I can speak from a Navy standpoint. I guess, Captain Moore, you were concerned about that. I know I guess it's been over 10 years now, but naval surface ships do have facilities on board to melt down plastic into discs, which they bring back into port and recycle later on. So they've made those steps. Submarines did continue to dump plastic for awhile. We would put them into metal cans, weight them down and shoot them out, but now we currently hold all plastic on board until we get to our next port. And just seeing the trash out in the ocean I'm more conscious about what I use, what I throw away, definitely what I reuse and obviously good boating practices.
REHMSean, I'm glad you called. Captain Moore?
MOOREYes. And I do appreciate the hockey puck kinda deal. You know the pizzas that the Navy is producing by melting down, kind of a vertical trash compactor with a waffle iron at the bottom that makes these pizzas that then can be land filled. But if you read "Captain's Duty" by Captain Phillips who was rescued by the Navy SEALS, he almost lost it as he was being held during the negotiations for his release. It was the middle of the night and they heard a plop in the ocean and some shapes floating by. And the pirates got on the radio and said no action, no action. And they thought the Navy SEALS were mounting a rescue operation. And the captain of the frigate came back on and said, oh, don't worry about it, that's just our trash.
MOORESo they were still dumping bags of plastic and that was documented in Captain Phillips' book. So I do appreciate that many vessels are so equipped, but this is the same problem we have with port facilities. Many ports are not equipped to handle trash. So there's no place for a boat that saves it to discharge it. In the U.S. and Europe many ports are so equipped, but other ports in the world maybe not.
REHMSean, I'm glad you called.
SEANWell, thank you very much.
REHMAll right. And to Weston, Conn. Good morning, Ken.
KENGood morning, Diane. Great show.
KENI wanna ask your -- oh, incidentally, I'm one of the hundred-thousands of people without electricity. So …
REHMOh, dear, I'm so sorry. Hope it gets back soon.
KENSo am I.
KENBut I'd like to ask your guest, I’m a little confused about the dissipation of all these plastic particles, as opposed to the gathering effect of the things like the Sargasso Sea …
KEN…which is I guess is in the Atlantic.
KENAnd I seem to hear you saying two things, it's dissipating, yet it's gathering. Could you clarify that please?
MOORESure. In general, low-pressure systems spit it out and high-pressure systems accrete it. So you've got the Gulf of Alaska where you've got a lot of low-pressure storms spinning counterclockwise. And they would be tossing stuff out towards the gyres or towards the coast. And then the high-pressure systems tend to accrete the stuff and move it into their area.
MOORESo if you look at models of the ocean you'll find these accumulation points within these gyres and they are typically under a high-pressure system. The high-pressure system doesn't dominate the entire ocean, just 40 percent of it. So yeah there are parts of the ocean that spit the debris that's discharged into them out and other parts of the ocean that accumulate it into themselves.
MOOREAnd as for the biodegradation of plastic, there is small amounts of biodegradation taking place on all plastics. It's not as if they're completely immune to biodegradation. It's just that it's a very, very slow process in the ocean. So that we found, for instance, a piece of an airplane from the 1940s that was shot down …
MOORE… of plastic floating that's the oldest documented piece of plastic. So 65-year-old or 70-year-old plastics still are identifiable by their markings after having been in the environment that long. So we really don't have a good handle on how long this stuff will last. It's just we know it's a long time.
REHMThanks for calling, Ken. Here's an email from Katie, who says, "Engineered bacteria and microorganisms are used to clean up oil and even centuries-old frescoes in Italy. Has any work been done to try to create a bacteria that could digest plastics, either in landfills or in the ocean?"
MOOREIndeed, it's a popular science fair project for kids to find bacteria that are better at digesting plastics than other bacteria. And there are species of bacteria that have been identified that do a somewhat better job, but still it's orders of magnitude too slow to make a difference. And you wouldn't wanna release these things into the marine environment in any case. You know you don't wanna -- one of the problems we have with bioengineering is that it's dangerous to release into the environment as a whole. So, yeah, a lot of work's been done on it, but I don't think it's really the answer.
REHMCaptain Charles Moore. His new book is titled, "Plastic Ocean." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And now to Tallahassee, Fla. Good morning, Jerry. Thanks for joining us.
JERRYThank you, Diane. And thank you, Captain Moore, for being on the air. My concern for many years has been, why aren't we trying to recycle more containers and maybe get away from plastic? Anchor Hocking comes to mind in that they made glass containers that were always recyclable, reusable for years and years. And it just seems to me that even if there was a return refund fee or something, it'd be like a tax. It seems to me that that would start eliminating some of these plastic containers.
MOOREI think you make a great point because we've entered the plastic age without having the plastic conversation. We haven't really talked about what is the best way to deal with this new material. Here we are delivering all our food and all our products and sitting in it, driving in it, wearing it on our bodies and we haven't talked about it. This is plastic. We entered the plastic age in '79 when the production in the U.S. of plastic outstripped steal. And we still haven't talked about the fact that we're in this new plastic age. We need to have that conversation.
REHMWhat about glass? What about glass? What happens to glass?
MOOREGlass breaks. It has sharp shards. People drop stuff and it causes a big problem, but glass is remarkably inert when it comes to food contact. So it's a wonderful way to deliver beverages.
REHMBut what happens to it when it gets into the ocean, if you reverted to glass?
MOOREWell, it's certainly not going to biodegrade. What's gonna happen is it's gonna become part of the Earth's crust, which is from whence it came. Silicon is a very major part of the Earth's crust. Glass is made from sand and it's not a pollutant, as such. It's quite inert. So it's not a big problem.
MOOREThe problem we have is with these throw-away goods. Like when I hear the idea that we're going to have more products made cheaper I cringe. Even though you know the idea that the market will give us more cheap products if we just let it work so that everybody can have them. The typical way that we do that is by making them have a component that's a little less expensive, that makes it break just a little bit sooner and get thrown away a little bit faster. So that's what I worry about is this whole concept of the market's gonna get us out of this by making a new kind of a material that we can throw away into the ocean. I think that's a problem.
REHMTell me what you are most optimistic about.
MOOREWhat I’m most optimistic about is the young generation that realizes they're being left a hell of a mess and that they may be the first generation in many generations to live a shorter lifespan due to the mess both in the environment and the food chain and in the chemicals that is in their body burden. And that they have this tremendous desire to do something about it. When I was coming up in school we wanted to discover a new natural law. We wanted to be great physicists or great chemists. Now, the kids wanna be great cleaners of the environment. And I think that's the most optimistic thing.
REHMAnd here's a final email from Susan in Bloomington, Ind., who says, "Ten years ago there was a type of plastic touted that had an area in the polymer chain that was sensitive to sun and light and made the plastic disintegrate into tiny particles when exposed to sunlight for several weeks or months. Is that still used and is that what makes the particles small?"
MOOREYeah, as a matter of fact, the attorney general of the state of California just sued three water bottle companies who put that type of additive into their plastic to make it break down for false advertising, saying their bottles are biodegradable. That doesn't biodegrade, even if it comes small.
REHMCaptain Charles Moore. His new book is "Plastic Ocean, How a Sea Captain's Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save The Oceans." You can see photographs at our website, drshow.org. Thank you so much, Captain, for your book, for your work.
MOOREThank you so much for having me, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
Most Recent Shows
A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week's top national news stories.
The National Endowment for the Humanities turns 50 next year. William “Bro” Adams, the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, wants to make sure that the study of history, philosophy, and literature remains accessible to everyone. A conversation about his new "Common Good" initiative.
The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation is earning more than $3 billion from its investment in a new drug. Other charitable organizations are hoping to follow a similar path. New opportunities and new questions for nonprofits.