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What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? Captain Moore explains

APRIL 3, 2012
by Daniel Smith ’14, Contributing Writer

When imagining the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a collection of trash roughly twice the size of Texas, an image of a landfill floating on the surface comes to mind. We see a slew of Coke bottles, plastic bags, remnants of old toys, and broken down cardboard looking out of place in the rolling waves. Yet, as Captain Charles Moore explained on Tuesday evening, this is simply not the case.

“Surveying the ocean in the garbage patch is not like looking at an island of trash. That’s a misnomer. It’s mostly particulate. But when you dump a collection bag out, it’s filled with plastic.”

Moore, a leading researcher and authority on plastic pollution in the ocean, presented “The Plastic Ocean” to a packed Patrick Lecture Hall.

It would appear, much like the problems of pollution we face today, the garbage patch remains a casualty of the “out of sight, out of mind” principle. The founder of Algalita Marine Research, Moore said that if someone were to float right over the patch, they may not even notice anything was amiss.

For Moore, this partly explains why we continue to pollute our oceans with plastic. However, the reasons behind the vast increase in production of the plastics that have contributed to this pollution can be traced back to the 1950s.

During a press conference in 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was asked, “What should people do to make the recession recede?” His simple answer: “Buy. Buy anything.”

Moore points to this proclamation as the foundation for disposables, planned obsolescence and the perceived advantages of “throwaway living,” all of which result in plastic production approaching upwards of 300 million tons per year.

For humans, the immediate benefits of “throwaway living” are simple: it’s easy, quick, and allows us to move on to “more important” matters. Yet Moore showed that these benefits result in a great disservice being done to the animals and ecosystems that carry the burden of our wastefulness.

Throughout his travels as the Captain of Alguita, his research vessel, Moore has seen widespread evidence of this burden. He’s found numerous snapping turtles that were caught in plastic rings shortly after birth and have grown up with their midsections constricted, shells almost cut in half.

He’s seen albatross with cigarette lighters and bottle caps in their stomachs, a California Gray Whale with sweatpants and surgical gloves tangled in its intestines, and fish with 35 percent of their stomachs consisting of plastic alone.

The evidence of the problem is there, and for Moore, the ocean makes it abundantly clear that things are only getting worse. So what is the solution?

Moore believes we must shift how we view plastic and its effects on the environment. He suggests that we return to a localized model of living, oriented around thoughtful consumption, the recovery and reuse of materials, regionalized lifestyles, and a revamped infrastructure that decreases our reliance on globalized plastic production. And he believes we need to do these things now, before it’s too late.

“The ocean is now a plastic wasteland, and we’re slowly turning the creatures into plastic,” he said.

Last updated April 4, 2012
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