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No tech cure for oceans 'damned' by plastic

Plastic pollution in the Pacific Ocean is only getting worse and there's no clean tech solution, according to oceanographer Charles Moore.

Plastic contamination in the world's oceans is worse than previously imagined and no amount of technology can clean it up, according to Charles Moore. The oceanographer returned February 23 from a five-week odyssey in the Pacific Ocean with samples showing 48 parts plastic for every part of plankton.

"We are damned to a future of pollution by plastic," said Moore, who has spent more than a decade investigating Pacific plastic pollution. "There's no evidence it will end in a millennium."

Moore and his crew continue to study samples of plastic 'soup' from deep in the Pacific Ocean.
Moore and his crew continue to study samples of plastic 'soup' from deep in the Pacific Ocean. Algalita Marine Research Foundation

A plastic "graveyard" double the size of Texas swirls in the Pacific Ocean between San Francisco and Hawaii. There, his crew had found in the water six parts of plastic for every part plankton, with a fivefold increase in the amount of plastic between 1997 and 2007.

But their latest voyage found the pollution even thicker in the "highway" of ocean leading to the great Garbage Patch, according to Moore, who founded the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in Long Beach, Calif. Moore said that area comprises 2.5 million square miles.

In the Pacific alone, heavily polluted plastic zones amount to the size of the continent of Africa, Moore estimated.

Bobbing in the waters, especially closer to shore, are leftovers of everyday consumer products: plastic bags, toothbrushes, cigarette lighters, bottles and their caps, toys, and fast food wrappers.

"We found a video camera case that was clean enough that you could put a video camera in it, but it was starting to get covered in barnacles," he said.

Eighty percent of garbage within waterways, most of it plastic, begins its journey on land rather than coming from boats, according to Algalita and the California Coastal Commission.

Toxic plastic kills wildlife, poisons seafood, and could even exacerbate global warming.

Stories abound of the bellies of birds and sea creatures stuffed with colorful plastic caps and wrappers mistaken for food.

On their latest trip, Moore's crew was shocked to find that plastic could be creating new habitats. Hungry gulls are traveling far from home into the ocean to feast upon barnacles and crabs attached to plastic debris.

Although there's no solid data about how much plastic birds and fish are eating, plastic in seafood is likely harmful for people to eat, as are better-understood toxic metals such as mercury. Plastic acts like a sponge for poisons such as PCBs, concentrating them at levels a million times higher than in seawater.

Plastic ingredients are linked with various cancers and reproductive problems. For instance, bisphenol A, found in water bottles, has shown in lab rats to disrupt hormones and is associated with obesity and diabetes.

Some scientists believe that those bobbing bits of polymer in the ocean could contribute to global warming by creating a shaded canopy that makes it harder for plankton to grow.

Pelagic crabs attached to plastic, like this laundry basket pulled from the ocean, attract hungry birds.
Pelagic crabs attached to plastic, like this laundry basket pulled from the ocean, attract hungry birds. Algalita Marine Research Foundation

The deeper Moore's crew traveled into the Garbage Patch, the harder it became to tell what the plastics used to be. That's because the material breaks down into dusty bits. The plastic "soup" is visible up close but not from the air, making its scale difficult to measure with satellite or aerial imagery, he said.

"Day after day, sitting on the bow of that ship, seeing confetti on the surface of ocean, you really become appalled," Moore said.

He gets e-mails nearly every day from companies proposing plastic cleanup methods for the oceans, but none seem feasible by a long shot, he said.

"They want to have navies trawling the ocean, but the ocean's average depth is 2 miles. First you've got to prove you can sift the Sahara Desert."

And Moore is cautious about plans from start-ups such as Climos, which is seeking to seed the ocean with plankton, because there's no proof the algae they'd grow would be safe.

Because Moore sees no way to eliminate the plastic pollution, he urges consumers to change their habits to keep plastic out of waterways. And he wants plastics that can't be recycled not to be produced in the first place.

He and other activists hope for the government to accelerate research into alternatives, perhaps even subsidizing the makers of bioplastics, while building a better recycling infrastructure.

Only about 3 percent of plastics are recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. And of those that are recycled, most appear to be sent abroad because there are relatively few plastics recycling centers in the United States.

Moore is suspicious, however, of new, 'green' plastics that haven't been studied in-depth and whose labels don't show how long they would take to break down in water as opposed to a compost heap.