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TED2009

Charles Moore: Seas of plastic

February 5, 2009

Capt. Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation first discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch -- an endless floating waste of plastic trash. Now he's drawing attention to the growing, choking problem of plastic debris in our seas.

Charles Moore - Oceanographer
Charles Moore is founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. He captains the foundation's research vessel, the Alguita, documenting the great expanses of plastic waste that now litter our oceans. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Let's talk trash.
00:12
You know, we had to be taught
00:14
to renounce the powerful conservation ethic
00:17
we developed during the Great Depression and World War II.
00:20
After the war, we needed to direct our enormous production capacity
00:23
toward creation of products for peacetime.
00:26
Life Magazine helped in this effort
00:29
by announcing the introduction of throwaways
00:32
that would liberate the housewife from the drudgery of doing dishes.
00:35
Mental note to the liberators:
00:38
throwaway plastics take a lot of space and don't biodegrade.
00:40
Only we humans make waste that nature can't digest.
00:43
Plastics are also hard to recycle.
00:48
A teacher told me how to express the under-five-percent
00:51
of plastics recovered in our waste stream.
00:54
It's diddly-point-squat.
00:57
That's the percentage we recycle.
01:00
Now, melting point has a lot to do with this.
01:06
Plastic is not purified by the re-melting process like glass and metal.
01:09
It begins to melt below the boiling point of water
01:12
and does not drive off the oily contaminants
01:15
for which it is a sponge.
01:18
Half of each year's 100 billion pounds of thermal plastic pellets
01:21
will be made into fast-track trash.
01:24
A large, unruly fraction of our trash
01:27
will flow downriver to the sea.
01:30
Here is the accumulation at Biona Creek next to the L.A. airport.
01:33
And here is the flotsam near California State University Long Beach
01:36
and the diesel plant we visited yesterday.
01:41
In spite of deposit fees,
01:43
much of this trash leading out to the sea will be plastic beverage bottles.
01:45
We use two million of them in the United States every five minutes,
01:48
here imaged by TED presenter Chris Jordan,
01:52
who artfully documents mass consumption and zooms in for more detail.
01:55
Here is a remote island repository for bottles
02:01
off the coast of Baja California.
02:05
Isla San Roque is an uninhabited bird rookery
02:08
off Baja's sparsely populated central coast.
02:10
Notice that the bottles here have caps on them.
02:12
Bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate, PET,
02:15
will sink in seawater and not make it this far from civilization.
02:19
Also, the caps are produced in separate factories
02:22
from a different plastic, polypropylene.
02:25
They will float in seawater,
02:28
but unfortunately do not get recycled under the bottle bills.
02:30
Let's trace the journey of the millions of caps
02:34
that make it to sea solo.
02:37
After a year the ones from Japan are heading straight across the Pacific,
02:39
while ours get caught in the California current
02:42
and first head down to the latitude of Cabo San Lucas.
02:45
After ten years, a lot of the Japanese caps
02:48
are in what we call the Eastern Garbage Patch,
02:51
while ours litter the Philippines.
02:53
After 20 years, we see emerging the debris accumulation zone
02:55
of the North Pacific Gyre.
02:58
It so happens that millions of albatross
03:01
nesting on Kure and Midway atolls
03:03
in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands National Monument
03:05
forage here and scavenge whatever they can find
03:08
for regurgitation to their chicks.
03:11
A four-month old Laysan Albatross chick
03:13
died with this in its stomach.
03:16
Hundreds of thousands of the goose-sized chicks are dying
03:19
with stomachs full of bottle caps and other rubbish,
03:24
like cigarette lighters ...
03:27
but, mostly bottle caps.
03:30
Sadly, their parents mistake bottle caps for food
03:33
tossing about in the ocean surface.
03:36
The retainer rings for the caps
03:39
also have consequences for aquatic animals.
03:41
This is Mae West,
03:44
still alive at a zookeeper's home in New Orleans.
03:46
I wanted to see what my home town of Long Beach was contributing to the problem,
03:49
so on Coastal Clean-Up Day in 2005
03:53
I went to the Long Beach Peninsula, at the east end of our long beach.
03:56
We cleaned up the swaths of beach shown.
03:59
I offered five cents each for bottle caps.
04:02
I got plenty of takers.
04:05
Here are the 1,100 bottle caps they collected.
04:07
I thought I would spend 20 bucks.
04:10
That day I ended up spending nearly 60.
04:13
I separated them by color
04:16
and put them on display the next Earth Day
04:18
at Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro.
04:20
Governor Schwarzenegger and his wife Maria stopped by to discuss the display.
04:22
In spite of my "girly man" hat, crocheted from plastic shopping bags,
04:26
they shook my hand. (Laughter)
04:29
I showed him and Maria a zooplankton trawl
04:33
from the gyre north of Hawaii
04:36
with more plastic than plankton.
04:39
Here's what our trawl samples from the plastic soup our ocean has become look like.
04:41
Trawling a zooplankton net on the surface for a mile
04:46
produces samples like this.
04:49
And this.
04:52
Now, when the debris washes up on the beaches of Hawaii
04:55
it looks like this.
04:58
And this particular beach is Kailua Beach,
05:00
the beach where our president and his family vacationed before moving to Washington.
05:02
Now, how do we analyze samples like this one
05:05
that contain more plastic than plankton?
05:08
We sort the plastic fragments into different size classes,
05:11
from five millimeters to one-third of a millimeter.
05:14
Small bits of plastic concentrate persistent organic pollutants
05:17
up to a million times their levels in the surrounding seawater.
05:21
We wanted to see if the most common fish in the deep ocean,
05:25
at the base of the food chain,
05:28
was ingesting these poison pills.
05:30
We did hundreds of necropsies,
05:32
and over a third had polluted plastic fragments in their stomachs.
05:35
The record-holder, only two-and-a-half inches long,
05:38
had 84 pieces in its tiny stomach.
05:41
Now, you can buy certified organic produce.
05:44
But no fishmonger on Earth
05:47
can sell you a certified organic wild-caught fish.
05:50
This is the legacy we are leaving to future generations.
05:55
The throwaway society cannot be contained --
06:00
it has gone global.
06:03
We simply cannot store and maintain or recycle all our stuff.
06:06
We have to throw it away.
06:09
Now, the market can do a lot for us,
06:11
but it can't fix the natural system in the ocean we've broken.
06:14
All the king's horses and all the king's men ...
06:17
will never gather up all the plastic and put the ocean back together again.
06:20
Narrator (Video): The levels are increasing,
06:26
the amount of packaging is increasing,
06:28
the "throwaway" concept of living is proliferating,
06:30
and it's showing up in the ocean.
06:33
Anchor: He offers no hope of cleaning it up.
06:36
Straining the ocean for plastic
06:39
would be beyond the budget of any country
06:42
and it might kill untold amounts of sea life in the process.
06:45
The solution, Moore says, is to stop the plastic at its source:
06:48
stop it on land before it falls in the ocean.
06:51
And in a plastic-wrapped and packaged world,
06:58
he doesn't hold out much hope for that, either.
07:01
This is Brian Rooney for Nightline,
07:04
in Long Beach, California.
07:06
Charles Moore: Thank you.
07:12

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Charles Moore - Oceanographer
Charles Moore is founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. He captains the foundation's research vessel, the Alguita, documenting the great expanses of plastic waste that now litter our oceans.

Why you should listen

A yachting competition across the Pacific led veteran seafarer Charles Moore to discover what some have since deemed the world's largest "landfill" -- actually a huge water-bound swath of floating plastic garbage the size of two Texases. Trapped in an enormous slow whirlpool called the Pacific Gyre, a mostly stagnant, plankton-rich seascape spun of massive competing air currents, this Great Pacific Garbage Patch in some places outweighs even the surface waters' biomass six-to-one.

Moore said after his return voyage, "There were shampoo caps and soap bottles and plastic bags and fishing floats as far as I could see. Here I was in the middle of the ocean, and there was nowhere I could go to avoid the plastic."

Since his discovery, Moore has been analyzing the giant litter patch and its disastrous effects on ocean life. Through the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, he hopes to raise awareness about the problem and find ways to restrict its growth. He's now leading several expeditions to sample plastic fragments across thousands of miles of the Pacific.

The original video is available on TED.com
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