Reprinted with permission from
By Susan Casey, Photographs by Gregg Segal
January 6, 2007
A vast swath of the Pacific, twice the size of Texas, is full of a plastic
stew that is entering the food chain. Scientists say these toxins are
causing obesity, infertility…and worse.
Fate can take strange forms, and so perhaps it does not seem unusual that
Captain Charles Moore found his life’s purpose in a nightmare. Unfortunately,
he was awake at the time, and 800 miles north of Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean.
It happened on August 3, 1997, a lovely day, at least in the beginning:
Sunny. Little wind. Water the color of sapphires. Moore and the crew of
Alguita, his 50-foot aluminum-hulled catamaran, sliced through the sea.
Returning to Southern California from Hawaii after a sailing race, Moore
had altered Alguita’s course, veering slightly north. He had the
time and the curiosity to try a new route, one that would lead the vessel
through the eastern corner of a 10-million-square-mile oval known as the
North Pacific subtropical gyre. This was an odd stretch of ocean, a place
most boats purposely avoided. For one thing, it was becalmed. “The
doldrums,” sailors called it, and they steered clear. So did the
ocean’s top predators: the tuna, sharks, and other large fish that
required livelier waters, flush with prey. The gyre was more like a desert
- a slow, deep, clockwise-swirling vortex of air and water caused by a
mountain of high-pressure air that lingered above it.
The area’s reputation didn’t deter Moore. He had grown up in
Long Beach, 40 miles south of L.A., with the Pacific literally in his
front yard, and he possessed an impressive aquatic résumé:
deckhand, able seaman, sailor, scuba diver, surfer, and finally captain.
Moore had spent countless hours in the ocean, fascinated by its vast trove
of secrets and terrors. He’d seen a lot of things out there, things
that were glorious and grand; things that were ferocious and humbling.
But he had never seen anything nearly as chilling as what lay ahead of
him in the gyre.
It began with a line of plastic bags ghosting the surface, followed by
an ugly tangle of junk: nets and ropes and bottles, motor-oil jugs and
cracked bath toys, a mangled tarp. Tires. A traffic cone. Moore could
not believe his eyes. Out here in this desolate place, the water was a
stew of plastic crap. It was as though someone had taken the pristine
seascape of his youth and swapped it for a landfill.
How did all the plastic end up here? How did this trash tsunami begin?
What did it mean? If the questions seemed overwhelming, Moore would soon
learn that the answers were even more so, and that his discovery had dire
implications for human - and planetary - health. As Alguita glided through
the area that scientists now refer to as the “Eastern Garbage Patch,”
Moore realized that the trail of plastic went on for hundreds of miles.
Depressed and stunned, he sailed for a week through bobbing, toxic debris
trapped in a purgatory of circling currents. To his horror, he had stumbled
across the 21st-century Leviathan. It had no head, no tail. Just an endless body.
“Everybody’s plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.” This Andy Warhol quote
is emblazoned on a six-foot-long magenta and yellow banner that hangs
- with extreme irony - in the solar-powered workshop in Moore’s
Long Beach home. The workshop is surrounded by a crazy Eden of trees,
bushes, flowers, fruits, and vegetables, ranging from the prosaic (tomatoes)
to the exotic (cherimoyas, guavas, chocolate persimmons, white figs the
size of baseballs). This is the house in which Moore, 59, was raised,
and it has a kind of open-air earthiness that reflects his ’60s-activist
roots, which included a stint in a Berkeley commune. Composting and organic
gardening are serious business here - you can practically smell the humus
- but there is also a kidney-shaped hot tub surrounded by palm trees.
Two wet suits hang drying on a clothesline above it.
This afternoon, Moore strides the grounds. “How about a nice, fresh
boysenberry?” he asks, and plucks one off a bush. He’s a striking
man wearing no-nonsense black trousers and a shirt with official-looking
epaulettes. A thick brush of salt-and-pepper hair frames his intense blue
eyes and serious face. But the first thing you notice about Moore is his
voice, a deep, bemused drawl that becomes animated and sardonic when the
subject turns to plastic pollution. This problem is Moore’s calling,
a passion he inherited from his father, an industrial chemist who studied
waste management as a hobby. On family vacations, Moore recalls, part
of the agenda would be to see what the locals threw out. “We could
be in paradise, but we would go to the dump,” he says with a shrug.
“That’s what we wanted to see.”
Since his first encounter with the Garbage Patch nine years ago, Moore
has been on a mission to learn exactly what’s going on out there.
Leaving behind a 25-year career running a furniture-restoration business,
he has created the Algalita Marine Research Foundation to spread the word
of his findings. He has resumed his science studies, which he’d
set aside when his attention swerved from pursuing a university degree
to protesting the Vietnam War. His tireless effort has placed him on the
front lines of this new, more abstract battle. After enlisting scientists
such as Steven B. Weisberg, Ph.D. (executive director of the Southern
California Coastal Water Research Project and an expert in marine environmental
monitoring), to develop methods for analyzing the gyre’s contents,
Moore has sailed Alguita back to the Garbage Patch several times. On each
trip, the volume of plastic has grown alarmingly. The area in which it
accumulates is now twice the size of Texas.
At the same time, all over the globe, there are signs that plastic pollution
is doing more than blighting the scenery; it is also making its way into
the food chain. Some of the most obvious victims are the dead seabirds
that have been washing ashore in startling numbers, their bodies packed
with plastic: things like bottle caps, cigarette lighters, tampon applicators,
and colored scraps that, to a foraging bird, resemble baitfish. (One animal
dissected by Dutch researchers contained 1,603 pieces of plastic.) And
the birds aren’t alone. All sea creatures are threatened by floating
plastic, from whales down to zooplankton. There’s a basic moral
horror in seeing the pictures: a sea turtle with a plastic band strangling
its shell into an hourglass shape; a humpback towing plastic nets that
cut into its flesh and make it impossible for the animal to hunt. More
than a million seabirds, 100,000 marine mammals, and countless fish die
in the North Pacific each year, either from mistakenly eating this junk
or from being ensnared in it and drowning.
Bad enough. But Moore soon learned that the big, tentacled balls of trash
were only the most visible signs of the problem; others were far less
obvious, and far more evil. Dragging a fine-meshed net known as a manta
trawl, he discovered minuscule pieces of plastic, some barely visible
to the eye, swirling like fish food throughout the water. He and his researchers
parsed, measured, and sorted their samples and arrived at the following
conclusion: By weight, this swath of sea contains six times as much plastic
as it does plankton.
This statistic is grim - for marine animals, of course, but even more so
for humans. The more invisible and ubiquitous the pollution, the more
likely it will end up inside us. And there’s growing - and disturbing
- proof that we’re ingesting plastic toxins constantly, and that
even slight doses of these substances can severely disrupt gene activity.
“Every one of us has this huge body burden,” Moore says. “You
could take your serum to a lab now, and they’d find at least 100
industrial chemicals that weren’t around in 1950.” The fact
that these toxins don’t cause violent and immediate reactions does
not mean they’re benign: Scientists are just beginning to research
the long-term ways in which the chemicals used to make plastic interact
with our own biochemistry.
In simple terms, plastic is a petroleum-based mix of monomers that become polymers, to
which additional chemicals are added for suppleness, inflammability, and
other qualities. When it comes to these substances, even the syllables
are scary. For instance, if you’re thinking that perfluorooctanoic
acid (PFOA) isn’t something you want to sprinkle on your microwave
popcorn, you’re right. Recently, the Science Advisory Board of the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) upped its classification of PFOA
to a likely carcinogen. Yet it’s a common ingredient in packaging
that needs to be oil- and heat-resistant. So while there may be no PFOA
in the popcorn itself, if PFOA is used to treat the bag, enough of it
can leach into the popcorn oil when your butter deluxe meets your superheated
microwave oven that a single serving spikes the amount of the chemical
in your blood.
Other nasty chemical additives are the flame retardants known as poly-brominated
diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). These chemicals have been shown to cause liver
and thyroid toxicity, reproductive problems, and memory loss in preliminary
animal studies. In vehicle interiors, PBDEs - used in moldings and floor
coverings, among other things - combine with another group called phthalates
to create that much-vaunted “new-car smell.” Leave your new
wheels in the hot sun for a few hours, and these substances can “off-gas”
at an accelerated rate, releasing noxious by-products.
It’s not fair, however, to single out fast food and new cars. PBDEs,
to take just one example, are used in many products, incuding computers,
carpeting, and paint. As for phthalates, we deploy about a billion pounds
of them a year worldwide despite the fact that California recently listed
them as a chemical known to be toxic to our reproductive systems. Used
to make plastic soft and pliable, phthalates leach easily from millions
of products - packaged food, cosmetics, varnishes, the coatings of timed-release
pharmaceuticals - into our blood, urine, saliva, seminal fluid, breast
milk, and amniotic fluid. In food containers and some plastic bottles,
phthalates are now found with another compound called bisphenol A (BPA),
which scientists are discovering can wreak stunning havoc in the body.
We produce 6 billion pounds of that each year, and it shows: BPA has been
found in nearly every human who has been tested in the United States.
We’re eating these plasticizing additives, drinking them, breathing
them, and absorbing them through our skin every single day.
Most alarming, these chemicals may disrupt the endocrine system - the delicately
balanced set of hormones and glands that affect virtually every organ
and cell - by mimicking the female hormone estrogen. In marine environments,
excess estrogen has led to Twilight Zone-esque discoveries of male fish
and seagulls that have sprouted female sex organs.
On land, things are equally gruesome. “Fertility rates have been
declining for quite some time now, and exposure to synthetic estrogen
- especially from the chemicals found in plastic products - can have an
adverse effect,” says Marc Goldstein, M.D., director of the Cornell
Institute for Repro-ductive Medicine. Dr. Goldstein also notes that pregnant
women are particularly vulnerable: “Prenatal exposure, even in very
low doses, can cause irreversible damage in an unborn baby’s reproductive
organs.” And after the baby is born, he or she is hardly out of
the woods. Frederick vom Saal, Ph.D., a professor at the University of
Missouri at Columbia who specifically studies estrogenic chemicals in
plastics, warns parents to “steer clear of polycarbonate baby bottles.
They’re particularly dangerous for newborns, whose brains, immune
systems, and gonads are still developing.” Dr. vom Saal’s
research spurred him to throw out every polycarbonate plastic item in
his house, and to stop buying plastic-wrapped food and canned goods (cans
are plastic-lined) at the grocery store. “We now know that BPA causes
prostate cancer in mice and rats, and abnormalities in the prostate’s
stem cell, which is the cell implicated in human prostate cancer,”
he says. “That’s enough to scare the hell out of me.”
At Tufts University, Ana M. Soto, M.D., a professor of anatomy and cellular
biology, has also found connections between these chemicals and breast cancer.
As if the potential for cancer and mutation weren’t enough, Dr. vom
Saal states in one of his studies that “prenatal exposure to very
low doses of BPA increases the rate of postnatal growth in mice and rats.”
In other words, BPA made rodents fat. Their insulin output surged wildly
and then crashed into a state of resistance - the virtual definition of
diabetes. They produced bigger fat cells, and more of them. A recent scientific
paper Dr. vom Saal coauthored contains this chilling sentence: “These
findings suggest that developmental exposure to BPA is contributing to
the obesity epidemic that has occurred during the last two decades in
the developed world, associated with the dramatic increase in the amount
of plastic being produced each year.” Given this, it is perhaps
not entirely coincidental that America’s staggering rise in diabetes
- a 735 percent increase since 1935 - follows the same arc.
This news is depressing enough to make a person reach for the bottle. Glass, at least, is easily
recyclable. You can take one tequila bottle, melt it down, and make another
tequila bottle. With plastic, recycling is more complicated. Unfortunately,
that promising-looking triangle of arrows that appears on products doesn’t
always signify endless reuse; it merely identifies which type of plastic
the item is made from. And of the seven different plastics in common use,
only two of them - PET (labeled with #1 inside the triangle and used in
soda bottles) and HDPE (labeled with #2 inside the triangle and used in
milk jugs) - have much of an aftermarket. So no matter how virtuously
you toss your chip bags and shampoo bottles into your blue bin, few of
them will escape the landfill - only 3 to 5 percent of plastics are recycled
in any way.
“There’s no legal way to recycle a milk container into another
milk container without adding a new virgin layer of plastic,” Moore
says, pointing out that, because plastic melts at low temperatures, it
retains pollutants and the tainted residue of its former contents. Turn
up the heat to sear these off, and some plastics release deadly vapors.
So the reclaimed stuff is mostly used to make entirely different products,
things that don’t go anywhere near our mouths, such as fleece jackets
and carpeting. Therefore, unlike recycling glass, metal, or paper, recycling
plastic doesn’t always result in less use of virgin material. It
also doesn’t help that fresh-made plastic is far cheaper.
Moore routinely finds half-melted blobs of plastic in the ocean, as though
the person doing the burning realized partway through the process that
this was a bad idea, and stopped (or passed out from the fumes). “That’s
a concern as plastic proliferates worldwide, and people run out of room
for trash and start burning plastic - you’re producing some of the
most toxic gases known,” he says. The color-coded bin system may
work in Marin County, but it is somewhat less effective in subequatorial
Africa or rural Peru.
“Except for the small amount that’s been incinerated - and
it’s a very small amount - every bit of plastic ever made still
exists,” Moore says, describing how the material’s molecular
structure resists biodegradation. Instead, plastic crumbles into ever-tinier
fragments as it’s exposed to sunlight and the elements. And none
of these untold gazillions of fragments is disappearing anytime soon:
Even when plastic is broken down to a single molecule, it remains too
tough for biodegradation.
Truth is, no one knows how long it will take for plastic to biodegrade,
or return to its carbon and hydrogen elements. We only invented the stuff
144 years ago, and science’s best guess is that its natural disappearance
will take several more centuries. Meanwhile, every year, we churn out
about 60 billion tons of it, much of which becomes disposable products
meant only for a single use. Set aside the question of why we’re
creating ketchup bottles and six-pack rings that last for half a millennium,
and consider the implications of it: Plastic never really goes away.
Ask a group of people to name an overwhelming global problem, and you’ll hear
about climate change, the Middle East, or AIDS. No one, it is guaranteed,
will cite the sloppy transport of nurdles as a concern. And yet nurdles,
lentil-size pellets of plastic in its rawest form, are especially effective
couriers of waste chemicals called persistent organic pollutants, or POPs,
which include known carcinogens such as DDT and PCBs.
The United States banned these poisons in the 1970s, but they remain stubbornly
at large in the environment, where they latch on to plastic because of
its molecular tendency to attract oils.
The word itself - nurdles - sounds cuddly and harmless, like a cartoon
character or a pasta for kids, but what it refers to is most certainly
not. Absorbing up to a million times the level of POP pollution in their
surrounding waters, nurdles become supersaturated poison pills. They’re
light enough to blow around like dust, to spill out of shipping containers,
and to wash into harbors, storm drains, and creeks. In the ocean, nurdles
are easily mistaken for fish eggs by creatures that would very much like
to have such a snack. And once inside the body of a bigeye tuna or a king
salmon, these tenacious chemicals are headed directly to your dinner table.
One study estimated that nurdles now account for 10 percent of plastic
ocean debris. And once they’re scattered in the environment, they’re
diabolically hard to clean up (think wayward confetti). At places as remote
as Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands, 2,100 miles northeast of New Zealand
and a 12-hour flight from L.A., they’re commonly found mixed with
beach sand. In 2004, Moore received a $500,000 grant from the state of
California to investigate the myriad ways in which nurdles go astray during
the plastic manufacturing process. On a visit to a polyvinyl chloride
(PVC) pipe factory, as he walked through an area where railcars unloaded
ground-up nurdles, he noticed that his pant cuffs were filled with a fine
plastic dust. Turning a corner, he saw windblown drifts of nurdles piled
against a fence. Talking about the experience, Moore’s voice becomes
strained and his words pour out in an urgent tumble: “It’s
not the big trash on the beach. It’s the fact that the whole biosphere
is becoming mixed with these plastic particles. What are they doing to
us? We’re breathing them, the fish are eating them, they’re
in our hair, they’re in our skin.”
Though marine dumping is part of the problem, escaped nurdles and other
plastic litter migrate to the gyre largely from land. That polystyrene
cup you saw floating in the creek, if it doesn’t get picked up and
specifically taken to a landfill, will eventually be washed out to sea.
Once there, it will have plenty of places to go: The North Pacific gyre
is only one of five such high-pressure zones in the oceans. There are
similar areas in the South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic, and
the Indian Ocean. Each of these gyres has its own version of the Garbage
Patch, as plastic gathers in the currents. Together, these areas cover
40 percent of the sea. “That corresponds to a quarter of the earth’s
surface,” Moore says. “So 25 percent of our planet is a toilet
that never flushes.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In 1865, a few years after Alexander Parkes unveiled a
precursor to man-made plastic called Parkesine, a scientist named John
W. Hyatt set out to make a synthetic replacement for ivory billiard balls.
He had the best of intentions: Save the elephants! After some tinkering,
he created celluloid. From then on, each year brought a miraculous recipe:
rayon in 1891, Teflon in 1938, polypropylene in 1954. Durable, cheap,
versatile - plastic seemed like a revelation. And in many ways, it was.
Plastic has given us bulletproof vests, credit cards, slinky spandex pants.
It has led to breakthroughs in medicine, aerospace engineering, and computer
science. And who among us doesn’t own a Frisbee?
Plastic has its benefits; no one would deny that. Few of us, however, are
as enthusiastic as the American Plastics Council. One of its recent press
releases, titled “Plastic Bags - A Family’s Trusted Companion,”
reads: “Very few people remember what life was like before plastic
bags became an icon of convenience and practicality - and now art. Remember
the ‘beautiful’ [sic] swirling, floating bag in American Beauty?”
Alas, the same ethereal quality that allows bags to dance gracefully across
the big screen also lands them in many less desirable places. Twenty-three
countries, including Germany, South Africa, and Australia, have banned,
taxed, or restricted the use of plastic bags because they clog sewers
and lodge in the throats of livestock. Like pernicious Kleenex, these
flimsy sacks end up snagged in trees and snarled in fences, becoming eyesores
and worse: They also trap rainwater, creating perfect little breeding
grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes.
In the face of public outrage over pictures of dolphins choking on “a
family’s trusted companion,” the American Plastics Council
takes a defensive stance, sounding not unlike the NRA: Plastics don’t
pollute, people do.
It has a point. Each of us tosses about 185 pounds of plastic per year.
We could certainly reduce that. And yet - do our products have to be quite
so lethal? Must a discarded flip-flop remain with us until the end of
time? Aren’t disposable razors and foam packing peanuts a poor consolation
prize for the destruction of the world’s oceans, not to mention
our own bodies and the health of future generations? “If ‘more
is better’ and that’s the only mantra we have, we’re
doomed,” Moore says, summing it up.
Oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, Ph.D., an expert on marine debris, agrees.
“If you could fast-forward 10,000 years and do an archaeological
dig… you’d find a little line of plastic,” he told
The Seattle Times last April. “What happened to those people? Well,
they ate their own plastic and disrupted their genetic structure and weren’t
able to reproduce. They didn’t last very long because they killed
Our oceans are turning into plastic…are we? Wrist-slittingly depressing,
yes, but there are glimmers of hope on the horizon. Green architect and
designer William McDonough has become an influential voice, not only in
environmental circles but among Fortune 500 CEOs. McDonough proposes a
standard known as “cradle to cradle” in which all manufactured
things must be reusable, poison-free, and beneficial over the long haul.
His outrage is obvious when he holds up a rubber ducky, a common child’s
bath toy. The duck is made of phthalate-laden PVC, which has been linked
to cancer and reproductive harm. “What kind of people are we that
we would design like this?” McDonough asks. In the United States,
it’s commonly accepted that children’s teething rings, cosmetics,
food wrappers, cars, and textiles will be made from toxic materials. Other
countries - and many individual companies - seem to be reconsidering.
Currently, McDonough is working with the Chinese government to build seven
cities using “the building materials of the future,” including
a fabric that is safe enough to eat and a new, nontoxic polystyrene.
Thanks to people like Moore and McDonough, and media hits such as Al Gore’s
An Inconvenient Truth, awareness of just how hard we’ve bitch-slapped
the planet is skyrocketing. After all, unless we’re planning to
colonize Mars soon, this is where we live, and none of us would choose
to live in a toxic wasteland or to spend our days getting pumped full
of drugs to deal with our haywire endocrine systems and runaway cancer.
None of plastic’s problems can be fixed overnight, but the more we
learn, the more likely that, eventually, wisdom will trump convenience
and cheap disposability. In the meantime, let the cleanup begin: The National
Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is aggressively
using satellites to identify and remove “ghost nets,” abandoned
plastic fishing gear that never stops killing. (A single net recently
hauled up off the Florida coast contained more than 1,000 dead fish, sharks,
and one loggerhead turtle.) New biodegradable starch- and corn-based plastics
have arrived, and Wal-Mart has signed on as a customer. A consumer rebellion
against dumb and excessive packaging is afoot. And in August 2006, Moore
was invited to speak about “marine debris and hormone disruption”
at a meeting in Sicily convened by the science advisor to the Vatican.
This annual gathering, called the International Seminars on Planetary
Emergencies, brings scientists together to discuss mankind’s worst
threats. Past topics have included nuclear holocaust and terrorism.
The gray plastic kayak floats next to Moore’s catamaran, Alguita, which lives in
a slip across from his house. It is not a lovely kayak; in fact, it looks
pretty rough. But it’s floating, a sturdy, eight-foot-long two-seater.
Moore stands on Alguita’s deck, hands on hips, staring down at it.
On the sailboat next to him, his neighbor, Cass Bastain, does the same.
He has just informed Moore that he came across the abandoned craft yesterday,
floating just offshore. The two men shake their heads in bewilderment.
“That’s probably a $600 kayak,” Moore says, adding, “I
don’t even shop anymore. Anything I need will just float by.”
(In his opinion, the movie Cast Away was a joke - Tom Hanks could’ve
built a village with the crap that would’ve washed ashore during a storm.)
Watching the kayak bobbing disconsolately, it is hard not to wonder what
will become of it. The world is full of cooler, sexier kayaks. It is also
full of cheap plastic kayaks that come in more attractive colors than
battleship gray. The ownerless kayak is a lummox of a boat, 50 pounds
of nurdles extruded into an object that nobody wants, but that’ll
be around for centuries longer than we will.
And as Moore stands on deck looking into the water, it is easy to imagine
him doing the same thing 800 miles west, in the gyre. You can see his
silhouette in the silvering light, caught between ocean and sky. You can
see the mercurial surface of the most majestic body of water on earth.
And then below, you can see the half-submerged madhouse of forgotten and
discarded things. As Moore looks over the side of the boat, you can see
the seabirds sweeping overhead, dipping and skimming the water. One of
the journeying birds, sleek as a fighter plane, carries a scrap of something
yellow in its beak. The bird dives low and then boomerangs over the horizon. Gone.