If you've heard that there's a "garbage patch" twice the size of Texas floating around in the Pacific Ocean, it's because Capt. Charles Moore has been working very hard to make sure that you do. Moore charts his journey from concerned mariner to active citizen scientist in Plastic Ocean: How a Sea Captain's Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans (Avery, 2011). Moore grew up on the harbor and spent his early years sailing the Pacific with his father. His love and respect for the open waters comes from his intimate relationship with it. Above all, he sees the vast ocean as a refuge for pristine nature; a place free from the touch of man's technology, development, and waste. Or, at least he used to. In a 1997 voyage, Moore first started noticing trash bobbing in waters thousands of miles away from civilization. In that moment, the wheels started turning on what would become his mission for at least the next 15 years.
When one sees the heartbreaking images of a half-decayed Laysan albatross with a gut full of water bottle caps, disposable lighters, and Bic pens, only the most cynical among us could continue to believe that our single-use culture is not culpable in the irreparable harm being done to the natural world. And while Moore shares this view about large plastic debris, several key moments caused him to start to ask questions about all the microplastics that we can't readily see and so are less likely to elicit such a visceral reaction, but that may be doing even more harm.
With the rigors of publishing a peer-reviewed paper in mind, Moore and his team devised a research project that would compare the amount of small plastic bits bobbing around just under the surface of the waters with the amount of zooplankton, the very basis of our entire food chain. He discovered that, by weight, there was six times more plastic than life in his samples. The obvious problem with this is that animals, from the smallest on up to the Laysan albatross, eat more plastic than actual food. The issue that Moore had to tease out, but that might pose an even greater risk to all lifeforms that depend on the sea (that is, all of us) is that plastics are not only toxic in and of themselves, they also act as sponges and soak up the most harmful and persistent toxic compounds that contaminate our environment. These toxins enter the food chain at the bottom rung and continue to biomagnify as they work their way up, ultimately to man.