I had never been so excited to see garbage in my life. I was actually giddy. After flying from Los Angeles to the Big Island of Hawaii, I hitched a ride on the research vessel Alguita as it did a shakedown cruise, readying to set sail to traverse the massive Eastern Garbage Patch, which lies between there and California. This rubbish-strewn patch floats within the North Pacific Gyre, the center of a series of currents several thousand miles wide that create a circular effect, ensnaring trash and debris. Around and around: bottles, plastic bags, fishnets, clothing, lighters, and myriad other man-made items, held until they disintegrate, make their way to distant seas, or merely bob among the waves before washing up on someone’s beach.
I learned about the Eastern Garbage Patch, also called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, from studies the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, based in Long Beach, California, has conducted while trolling it seven times over the past decade. The foundation’s fieldwork has revealed an ever-growing synthetic sea where particles concentrate by season, trash commutes in the currents from far-off places, and plastic outweighs zooplankton, retarding ocean life. Fascinating stuff. Captain Charles Moore founded the Algalita foundation and commands its research vessel, the Alguita. (Maddeningly similar names, I know.)
Moore first discovered the garbage patch when he crossed the Pacific in 1997 after competing in the Transpacific Yacht Race. Since then he has been passionate about investigating it and creating awareness about its significance—and the significance of the Eastern Garbage Patch is enormous. His findings have gone a long way toward educating the science community, if not yet the public, on the magnitude of marine pollution and its impact on life—all life.
Sitting on the deck of his boat in Hilo Harbor, Hawaii, last January, he tells me about the crew’s next mission, which is just days away: to map the size, content, and density of the Eastern Garbage Patch. The patch, you see, isn’t well understood. People think it’s like a solid mass of trash you’d find at a dump site (I’ve been asked: “Can you walk on it?” “Can you land a plane on it?”), but it’s really diffuse, like “plastic soup,” as Moore describes it.
But don’t for a second think that its mass isn’t substantial. Its sprawl may cover an area as much as one and a half times? the size of the United States, Moore says, and to a depth of 100 feet, if not deeper. But because this rubbish is in the ocean, it drifts. Fragments peel off here and there; some of it drops to the ocean floor. Even for those who do understand the makeup of the garbage patch, its effect on the marine ecosystem is as yet largely unknown.
Moore, 61, is a scruffy sea captain whose blue eyes are both sad and keen. His salt-and-pepper hair is typically covered by an odd-fitting hat (“Die Trying” emblazoned across its brow). He is, as most sailors go, an old salt.
“In the central North Pacific Gyre, pieces of plastic outweigh surface zooplankton by a factor of 6 to 1,” according to a report based on Moore’s research. “Ninety percent of Laysan albatross chick carcasses and regurgitated stomach contents contain plastics. Fish and seabirds mistake plastic for food. Plastic debris releases chemical additives and plasticizers into the ocean. Plastic also adsorbs hydrophobic pollutants like PCBs and pesticides like DDT. These pollutants bioaccumulate in the tissues of marine organisms, biomagnify up the food chain, and find their way into the foods we eat.”
You’ll notice the emphasis on plastics. Most other materials biodegrade or are not as buoyant as plastics, which do not biodegrade. Their resilience is also their menace, as today plastics have invaded the most distant places, from the Bering Sea to the South Pole. Indeed, when I was exploring a remote beach past the South Point of Hawaii, I found pill bottles from India and mashed pieces of various products—oil containers, detergent jugs, plastic caps—with Russian, Korean, and Chinese writing on them. It’s hard to get your brain around these connections. But float these things did, to shore.