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Sierra magazine
Message in a Bottle

Seabirds are starving with bellies full of trash. Fur seals in New Zealand poop shards of yellow and blue. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is twice the size of Texas. Now the bad news: Plastic never goes away, and scientists are finding that it absorbs toxins with spongelike efficiency. The fix? Cut it off at the source.

By David Ferris

Part 1: The Captain

Miraculous meeting in a sea of junk

On their three-month journey from Long Beach to Honolulu aboard the recycled Junk, Marcus Eriksen and Joel Paschal found plastic in the stomachs of fish caught in the mid-Pacific. "Plastic is forever," Eriksen blogged, "and it's everywhere."

On June 1, 2008, two men on a strange raft called Junk set sail from Long Beach, California, on a 2,600-mile voyage to Honolulu, Hawaii. The pontoons of their aptly named craft were made of 15,000 plastic bottles and discarded fishing nets; the deck, of old sailboat masts; and the cabin, from the fuselage of a Cessna.

Marcus Eriksen and Joel Paschal had hoped their voyage on Junk would raise awareness about the vast expanse of plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean. "We were two crazy guys with a crazy idea," Paschal says, laughing. The eco-mariners met at the Algalita Marine Research Foundation while researching the plastic pollution swirling around in the North Pacific Gyre. "It's like a toilet bowl that never flushes," Eriksen wrote on the duo's blog,

Before launching his expedition, Eriksen spoke with British adventurer Roz Savage, who was planning her own voyage to raise awareness about plastic marine debris in conjunction with the Blue Frontier Campaign. Having already rowed across the Atlantic several years before, she hoped to become the first woman to row across the Pacific. Savage and Eriksen talked about coordinating their efforts, but she left San Francisco before they could connect again.

More than two months into their respective journeys, the boats came within 100 miles of each other. Paschal's mother had been reading Savage's blog and heard that her water desalinator was broken. She called her son via satellite phone, and Junk was able to make radio contact with Savage and locate her on radar.

Savage had plenty of food and no water, and the other boat had lots of water but very little food. "Fortunately, when I met up with the guys on the Junk in mid-ocean, we were able to do a trade," Savage says. After a fine dinner of freshly speared mahimahi, she says, "we cut through all the small talk and got down to discussing the environment and how we could collaborate."

After three hours, Savage rowed into the sunset. Two weeks later, the three activists reunited in Honolulu to highlight the environmental dangers and health risks of plastic marine debris. Standing with Eriksen and Paschal in front of their vessels, Savage summed it up: "If we have sick oceans, we're going to end up with a sick planet and sick people." --Stuart Coleman

Photo: Peter Bennett/Ambient Images

Captain Charles Moore drives along a concrete channel in Long Beach, California, keeping an eye out for floating trash and chatting up a reporter--yet another one--who wants to know how the Great Pacific Garbage Patch came to be. Moore scans the green water. "Here," he says, pulling his Toyota Prius onto the shoulder and silencing the reggae on the stereo. Moore, 62, squirms like a teenager through a gap in the chain-link fence and leads the way down the channel bank to where a five-foot-thick crescent of trash has come to rest.

Many years ago the captain's father rowed around nearby Colorado Lagoon in a dory, picking up flotsam. One man could handle it all back then. Moore still lives in the bayside house his dad left him, and does garbage surveys from a boat docked across the street. But instead of a dory he uses a million-dollar, 25-ton catamaran, the Alguita, and instead of a lagoon he trolls the vast emptiness of the northern Pacific Ocean, where more than a decade ago he discovered a patch of plastic garbage hundreds of miles across, bobbing on the surface for anyone to see.

Charles Moore found this floating hard hat and barnacle-encrusted buoy 1,000 miles from the nearest land mass during a February 2008 voyage from Hawaii to California.

Today Moore is the most determined member of a small fraternity of biologists, bureaucrats, and activists coming to grips with what happens when humanity's "miracle" material, plastic, floats down the drain and merges with the oceans that cover 70 percent of the planet. A nonprofit that Moore founded, the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, studies these throwaway flotillas. In 2005 its researchers sampled the effluent of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers over three days following a big storm and estimated that 60 tons--some 2.3 billion individual pieces of trash--were pouring into the sea.

Arms folded across his Hawaiian shirt, Moore stares at the familiar flotsam: bubble wrap, soda bottles, a tennis ball, a Starbucks cup, a stuffed bunny, a GTX motor oil bottle, an empty jug of Tide, and innumerable bits of Styrofoam, from packing pellets to take-out trays. Crouching over the mud, he picks up a translucent pebble, then another. He pokes his fingers into the silt and soon displays a palmful of black and opal pearls, mud still clinging. These are "nurdles," he explains, the raw feedstock of plastic. In this form, before factories have melted them into Xerox machines and Frisbees, they make up 10 percent of the plastic found in the ocean.

Most of America's nurdles hatch in manufacturing plants in Texas and Louisiana, where workers pump from the earth the natural gas and petroleum from which the pellets are made. Wholesalers sell 50 million tons of them a year. The factory fixes a nurdle's DNA by brewing it into a particular type of plastic and then adding chemicals that make the final product hard or soft, elastic or rigid, colorful or colorless, ultraviolet- or shatter-resistant.

The polymer pearls, now more specialized than a worker ant, board trains and trucks and move from coast to coast to be melted and made into things so essential they're easy to forget, like the package that contains your tofu. The tofu heads to the supermarket in a crate of polypropylene, the same material that makes up the weave of the truck driver's long johns. The ride isn't too bouncy, thanks to the elastic polystyrene in the truck's tires. The driver parks and gets out of the padded seat--made from nurdles blown into expanded polyurethane--and hand-carts the crate to a walk-in cooler with polyurethane-insulated walls. Later, a customer grabs a plastic shopping cart and enters the store, heads past the polyvinyl chloride wall siding and window frames, and rolls to the refrigerator case.

There is the container of tofu. Illumination comes from overhead lights whose wires are sheathed in polyethylene. The package, too, is a batch of polyethylene nurdles, this time injection-molded into a form that's just the right size to hold a few tofu cubes. On top is stretched a clingy, transparent film known as PET, made from nurdles transformed into sheets. A similar material makes up the grocery bag that carries the tofu home and, finally, the garbage bag in which the waste is thrown away. Every year 12.5 million tons of plastic in the United States go unaccounted for, not to the dump or the recycler. Some portion of that missing plastic flows downhill and out to the ocean.

"This is what I call the lubricant of globalization," Moore says, pointing to his plastic pearls. "This was the packaging that allowed you to make your goods in Timbuktu and get them to L.A. This was the miracle stuff. This was better than sliced bread. It kept things so fresh and nice."

"But," he adds, "there's a downside."

Moore found that downside by accident on a pleasure cruise in 1997. As a child, he had played with Bunsen burners and managed controlled explosions under the tutelage of his father, a chemist at a power plant, who also taught the young Moore how to sail. Moore went on to a career repairing damaged cabinets, but imagined a second act as an ocean adventurer, researcher, and scientist--Indiana Jones in flip-flops. When he retired, he used the family fortune, passed down by his oilman grandfather, to create his foundation, have the Alguita built in Australia, and start patrolling the seas.

Most of the flotsam that floats to sea (in this case, via the San Gabriel River in Long Beach, California) comes from petroleum products that make our lives convenient and fun: bottles, balls, straws, cups, plastic bags, Frisbees . . . and on and on and on. Call it nurdle soup.

So it was that one sunny August day Moore and a few friends set out from Honolulu toward Long Beach. Most sailors cross the Pacific by catching the westerly winds and following the North Pacific Current in a lazy clockwise arc. Supplied with an extra bladder of diesel and a strong curiosity, Moore instead plotted a line straight through the North Pacific Gyre, a giant watery desert without any wind.

The Alguita motored across the gyre for a week. When Moore wasn't at the helm, he made tapioca and grilled steaks from a 100-pound bigeye tuna. Cloudless sky and still water stretched to the horizon in every direction.

"Going to the top of the mast to fix something, I would see a bottle cap, a shard of plastic floating by," he recalls. "I started betting myself that I could go on deck and not see something, and each time I was wrong."

Unbeknownst to Moore, five years earlier a Seattle oceanographer named Curtis Ebbesmeyer had become aware of and attached a name to this garbage patch. A container ship had lost a consignment of several thousand plastic bathtub duckies during a violent Pacific storm. An avid beachcomber, Ebbesmeyer had a worldwide network of fellow flotsam-lovers. He also had access to the latest computerized models of oceanic currents. So he put his friends on rubber-duck alert, and sure enough, the reports people sent from around the globe matched the computer's prediction: More often than not, the toys bobbed in a slow, clockwise eddy into that whirlpool Moore would later traverse.

"Things dropped off near Japan ended up in the doldrums and just kept collecting there," Ebbesmeyer says. "I called it a garbage patch, and the name seemed to catch on."

After returning from Honolulu, Moore, too, found himself drawn duckie-like into the gyre. Now, after eight voyages, countless experiments, and endless interviews, he probably has as good an understanding as anyone of the Garbage Patch. What it isn't, he says, is a solid mass like an ice floe. Rather, it is an inconceivably diffuse soup, a little here, a little there, doing not one but two roundabouts: in the eastern Pacific and in the western Pacific. Together these gyres form the shape of a dog bone. Moore describes the Garbage Patch as two to three times the size of Texas, but in fact it might be far larger--as much as 5 million square miles, or one and a half times the size of the United States. Sailors encounter it within 500 miles of the California coast and 200 miles off Japan.

These days the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, with its staff of nine and budget of $900,000--provided by Moore and a handful of donors--is dedicated to understanding and publicizing what happens when plastic and ocean collide. The foundation publishes its results in science journals and wages publicity campaigns.

Some researchers question whether a group with an agenda can make independent evaluations. Moore doesn't worry about such matters. "I could be like my neighbor over there, who spends his time on the deck sunning himself and inviting ladies over for cocktails. But I've seen the degradation firsthand of our natural environment, and that's a motivator," he says. "It lights a fire under you, makes you want to do something."

Part 2: The Scientist

Photos, from top: Peter Bennett/Ambient Images; Joel Paschal for the Algalita Marine Research Foundation; Peter Bennett/Ambient Images (2)



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