The world’s oceans are harboring a dirty secret: trash — and lots of it. This summer, as scientists continue to study the causes and effects of these so-called garbage patches, the first efforts are being made to try to clean up the mess.
Charles Moore has gone back over his ship’s log from 13 years ago, and there’s not a single entry about trash. His name may now be synonymous with plastic pollution in scientific circles, but he didn’t experience a eureka moment on his voyage of accidental discovery.
Moore, a former furniture restorer whose abiding interest in ocean research led him to create the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in 1994, was returning to California from a boating race in the western Pacific. Rather than ride the North Pacific Current in an arc home as most sailors do, Moore decided to follow a straight line rarely traveled through the North Pacific Gyre — a high-pressure area of circular currents and little wind.
As he motored through the gyre, Moore came to a gradual realization that he was seeing floating plastic debris each time he was on deck. “This stuff was way out in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “I thought, ‘What’s going on here?’ ”
After more than a dozen trips by Moore and research by several other institutions, the answer is now clear: In both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, there are vast stretches of water, known as garbage patches, that contain high concentrations of debris. Although larger garbage exists in the world’s oceans, the “patch” moniker refers to soup-like areas of tiny plastic pieces — some measuring only a few millimeters in size — punctuated by an occasional bottle cap or ghost net. And these patches are growing.
“The speed at which it’s been getting worse is alarming,” says Moore, whose most recent voyage through the Pacific gyre was last fall. “It’s well more than doubled in size since I’ve been studying it.” Doubled, he estimates, to twice the size of Texas, more than half a million miles — a garbage soup with approximately 620,000 pieces per square mile. That’s a lot of plastic polluting the water, or as one researcher described it, toilet bowls that never flush.
Since his initial discovery, Moore has been the pied piper of plastic pollution. He continues exploring the plastic problem as founder and research coordinator at the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. His work has put a spotlight on the issue, and a host of major oceanographic research institutions have taken up the cause alongside him.
This summer, there will be voyages into the gyres in both the Pacific and the Atlantic to better understand the potential problems. Researchers are also beginning to probe whether garbage patches exist in other remote ocean areas. And, for the first time, there are infant moves seeking a solution. Project Kaisei, part of the nonprofit organization Ocean Voyages Institute, which is based in Sausalito, Calif., will be the first group to attempt to collect large volumes of plastic from the water in a series of voyages that began last month. The voyages are both symbolic, further focusing media attention on the problem, and experimental, searching for ways to extract the garbage or recycle it to create something useful such as diesel fuel.