Landfill in the Sea

Oceanographer cites consumer "throwaway" culture as reason for ocean pollution.

January 8, 2009, 1:19 AM

LONG BEACH, Calif., March 26, 2008— -- If by chance you are missing a basketball, you may be glad to know that it has been found in the Pacific Ocean.

It was there along with giant tangles of rope, sunken snack-food bags, a plastic six-pack ring and thousands upon thousands of plastic bags, billowing under the ocean surface like jellyfish.

And that's not all.

There is a floating garbage dump about the size of Africa created by Pacific currents now carrying refuse from North America, Asia and the islands, concentrating it into a swirl of flotsam estimated to contain 3.5 million tons of junk, 80 percent of which is plastic.

Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, is an independently wealthy man who decided to spend his life studying the ocean. Ten years ago he was credited with discovering The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the oceanic dump of the Pacific Rim.

His organization is dedicated to restoring the marine environment. Among the many items he has pulled out of the water include: melted milk crates, a suitcase, fistfuls of toothbrushes, golf balls, glue sticks and brightly colored plastic umbrella handles.

"They are throwaway products," Moore said. "They are cheap now. An umbrella used to be something you might keep for a lifetime. Now an umbrella is for one storm."

Moore has focused his study on an area of the garbage patch that is twice the size of Texas, about a thousand miles from North America near the Hawaiian islands.

Sailing his research catamaran named the Alguita, Moore and a small crew drag a trawling device through the garbage patch to study the content of ocean water.

They find what he describes as a "plastic soup." In some cases there is more plastic in the waters than plankton, the basic food organism of the ocean.

"It has some zooplankton. But overwhelmingly what we're seeing here are plastic particles," Moore said. "The ocean has become a plastic soup. This is the soup."

The problem with plastic in particular is that it doesn't quite float, and doesn't sink either. Sunlight and salt water slowly break it down until bags become shreds, and hard plastic breaks down into multi-colored chips.

"This is the new beach sand that we've seeing throughout the pacific islands," Moore said. "It's a sand made of plastic."

Mixed in with the plastic sand is a tiny bit of sand of volcanic origin and coral.

"Formerly we got sand by breaking down rock and coral. Now we're getting sand by breaking down plastic," he said.

Some of it comes from ships, some from fishing floats, and more still from Styrofoam buoys. But the majority of plastic garbage in the ocean comes from land: bottles and cups dropped in the street and washed by rain into the storm sewer, into the rivers and eventually into the ocean.

"The ocean is downhill from everywhere," Moore said. "Things blow and drift into the ocean. They degrade into these particles and then become part of the ocean's load. And the consequences of this are currently unknown."

But some obvious consequences are known.

Moore and his crew have found jellyfish, fouled and caught in rope. Birds and sea life mistake the plastic for food. Bags that looks like jellyfish could choke turtles. Albatross chicks have been killed by a diet of plastic bits.

And then there's the question of what happens when the plastic breaks down even further.

"The bigger chips turn to smaller chips," Moore explained. "And we eventually get dust. Our concern is that this dust then goes to the molecular level and invades the entire food web in the ocean."

On a recent cruise in Long Beach Harbor, Moore and his crew used simple fishing nets to dredge up plastic waste headed out into the Pacific. He found container after container.

"Jerky. Plenty of jerky bags. Looks like a power bar. There's a granola bar," he said. "And the Ziploc baggies won't stop. Look at these Ziploc baggies one after the other. Baggies, baggies, baggies."

Moore said the amount of ocean trash is only increasing, which is a reflection of the increase in disposable packaging. He tracks the trends not at the store, but in the water.

"It's much easier to keep freshness in potato chips if you put a thin coating of metal on the inside of the bag. As soon as that started happening, we started finding these metalized chip bags out in the ocean," Moore said.

The Alguita returned from its most recent voyage with its rigging strung with found objects — Moore just hates to leave junk floating out there.

He turns his findings over to the SEA Lab in Redondo Beach, which analyzes the content and concentration of plastic in the water.

"No matter whether you're studying the surface, 10 meters, 30-meter samples or 100-meter samples, every sample that we've looked at in the pacific ocean has had plastic in it," said SEA Lab manager Gwen Lattin.

They even find what are called "nurdles," pellets of unmanufactured plastic spilled on factory lots and railway sidings that have washed out to the ocean.

"The levels are increasing, the amount of packaging is increasing, the throwaway concept of living is proliferating and it's showing up in the ocean," Moore said.

He offers no hope of cleaning it up. Straining the ocean for plastic would be beyond the budget of any country, and it might kill untold amounts of sea life in the process.

The solution, Moore says, is to stop the plastic at its source, stop it on land before it falls in the ocean. And in a plastic-wrapped and packaged world, he doesn't hold out much hope for that either.

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