ALISON STEWART, host:
One of the members of the Bryant Park Project Twitter community suggested a story to us. And it fit really perfectly with something we were already working on. Here's a tweet from Anhung (ph) 18901 says, "Segment idea, Whole Foods is phasing out plastic bags by Earth Day," coming up on April 22nd. Individuals and businesses alike are worried that those whisper-thin sacks will one day, basically, clog up the entire world.
If you think that's hyperbole, then you haven't heard about the huge plastic garbage mass nearly twice the size of Texas, floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and L.A. Plastic bags, plastic bottles, toothbrushes, toys, have formed a sort of plastic coating on the ocean surface, and it is getting bigger every year. Captain Charles Moore recently returned from his eighth trip through the patch with his group, Algalita Marine Research Foundation. Captain Moore, thanks for being with us.
Captain CHARLES MOORE (Founder, Algalita Marine Research Foundation): Good morning.
STEWART: So this is your eighth trip through the garbage patch. Let's roll back a little bit. When did you first come upon it?
Capt. MOORE: 1997. We were returning from a Transpac Yacht Race, and this is an area the racers avoid because there's no wind there. And on the way back we decided to motor through it, and it was 1997, the largest El Nino on record, and that meant calm winds for about a week, about a thousand miles of travel through this area. And every single day, every time I came on deck, I saw some form of refuse floating by, and resolved to come back and quantify that.
STEWART: All right, so as you returned, and you were able to quantify it. What changed over the years? What were you able to ascertain what was going on?
Capt. MOORE: Well, you know, it's been referred to as a "trash island," but really, what we're trying to do is stop it from becoming a trash island. It's a dispersed congregation of our debris from civilization, mostly plastic, and it's breaking into small fragments. So what we're experiencing when we look at it is not a sheet so much as a bunch of little bits sprinkled over the surface of the ocean. If it's calm, it sort of looks like a giant salt shaker has sprinkled bits of plastic onto the surface of the ocean.
STEWART: So it's like a plastic field.
Capt. MOORE: Yeah, what I say is, we're creating a virtual plastic sand beach on the surface of the ocean. We're beginning to cover the ocean with plastic.
STEWART: Now, you described this salt shaker like, this sort of description, but when you look down there, so you see objects that you recognize? Do you see toothbrushes? Do you see...
Capt. MOORE: Yeah, the idea is that in the current system that creates this vortex, it just so happens that debris from Asia arrives in about six months to a year, whereas debris from the West Coast of the United States takes five years or so to get around there. And so, when we read labels and see objects, they are mostly from Asia.
We see, you know, hard hats and umbrella handles and toothbrushes and power drinks and tofu tubs out there. And we pull up interesting objects, but when we attempt to quantify the amount of plastic that's out there, we're trolley-ing a net designed to catch zooplankton, which has only a third of a millimeter mesh. So we pull up every particle greater than a third of a millimeter in size.
STEWART: Now, is all of the plastic and trash out there the result of irresponsible dumping? Is it coming off of cruise ships? Off of boats? Or is it actually coming from the mainland?
Capt. MOORE: The figure we use is 80 percent land-based, 20 percent from ships at sea. As responsible as we like to think we can be, given the huge amount of plastic packaging we have to wade through every day and the tiny little bits and edges and parts of plastic packages that we have to tear apart to get at our goods, it's very difficult, even for the most responsible consumer, not to contribute to this ocean's plastic load.
STEWART: We're talking to Captain Charles Moore, who just recently returned from his eighth trip through the plastic patch out in between - in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and L.A. Why this particular area, Captain? Is there something about the currents that's attracting all the trash to one place?
Capt. MOORE: Yeah. What I've conjured up is the image of a toilet bowl, in which you've got the outer rim being swept by a clockwise current, and the inner bowl, somewhat depressed and lower in the middle. It's just that, a toilet's flushes, and the giant high pressure system that creates the North Pacific Gyre is dragging stuff toward the center, but it never flushes. It just keeps adding and adding and adding.
And if something is not done to stop the influx, which, at the present time, is creating an exponential increase, going up by a factor of ten off Japan every two to three years, we will have a floating trash island. And the consequences of putting that much stuff shading the surface of the ocean is unknown. We don't know the harm that it's doing to the animals that are feeding on this stuff, and we don't know how it's going to affect the sequestration of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
STEWART: I have to imagine that there's some group out there trying to figure out what to do, how to thwart this garbage island from happening, even if they're doing it for altruistic reasons or profitable reasons. There's got to be some company out there trying to figure out how to deal with this.
Capt. MOORE: Well, I assume what you're talking about is some sort of technological solution, in which a fleet of ships is involved in scraping up this mess and cleaning it up. But that is, you know, I'm sure that's well-intentioned, but the size and the fact that this material is mixed into the water column is, you know, you're talking five-million-square miles from 20-degrees north latitude to 40-degrees north, and from 130-degrees west longitude to 120-degrees east longitude.
STEWART: OK, Captain, you've made your point by describing that size. Captain Charles Moore is the founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation Group. Thanks for sharing your research with us, Captain.
Capt. MOORE: You're quite welcome. Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Stay with us. It's the BPP from NPR.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.