TOPICS > Science

World’s Oceans Face Problem of Plastic Pollution

November 13, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Some researchers believe that more than 5 million square miles of the Pacific Ocean has become a soup of plastic confetti. Now, scientists are trying to quantify the problem and are studying how plastic affects fish, marine mammals and birds.


JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the problems created by trash floating in the Pacific Ocean. Spencer Michels has our Science Unit report.

SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour correspondent: Sixty-one-year-old Charles Moore, former owner of a furniture repair business in Long Beach, California, and an amateur scientist, surprised the scientific world with a discovery he made in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

While sailing his research vessel back from Hawaii in 1997, he ran into what he calls a vast “garbage patch” in a calm part of the sea.

CHARLES MOORE, Ocean Researcher: Every single day for that week that we crossed these doldrums, we saw trash every time we came on deck. I think it’s fair to say that the phenomena exists from just off the coast of China all the way to a few hundred miles from the coast of California. It’s at least one-and-a-half times the size of the United States, approximately 5 million square miles.

SPENCER MICHELS: Using what’s called a manta trawl to skim the water, Moore and his crew found tons of trash in an area called the North Pacific Gyre, that is largely off the main shipping and sailing routes. Among the junk: umbrella handles, cigarette lighters, ropes, thousands of toothbrushes.

These are from Hawaii, huh?

CHARLES MOORE: Yes, they’re from Asia, probably. Like here’s a brand I don’t recognize.

SPENCER MICHELS: Most of the trash Moore found was plastic. He and others believe that plastic is washed down rivers into the Pacific, then carried by currents past Central America, by Guam and the Philippines, on towards Japan, picking up more debris all the time. It then flows east into the gyre, a garbage patch estimated by scientists to contain 3.5 million tons of junk.

CHARLES MOORE: It’s a very circuitous route, maybe taking five years for a piece of our trash to get out to the gyre.

SPENCER MICHELS: And once there, it gets stuck.

CHARLES MOORE: … so that you get kind of a toilet bowl effect of dragging the debris from the rim and bringing it into the center.

SPENCER MICHELS: Moore isn’t the only one finding plastic. Richard and Judith Selby Lang, both artists, have collected 7,000 pounds of trash that have washed up on one small beach north of San Francisco.

This day, they easily found several handfuls of plastic garbage, including round plastic pellets, or nurdles, used in fabrication of plastic objects. They use the plastic they find to create art and jewelry. And despite their free art supplies, they are disturbed by how much plastic comes from the sea.

JUDITH SELBY LANG, artist: We call things disposable, disposable lighters, disposable this, disposable that. But when we toss it away, it’s not really gone, and it’s not really gone for a long, long time. Everything ends up somewhere.

Plastic buildup harms wildlife

SPENCER MICHELS: The problem with plastic, they say, is that it doesn't biodegrade. It just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, down to the size of grains of sand, bite-size for fish and birds.

Moore worries that plastic is entering the food chain. He's found six times more plastic than plankton -- tiny plants and animals -- in some trawls and inside the fish he catches.

CHARLES MOORE: We're starting to find more plastic than natural food in some of these fish. And, in fact, over 50 percent of the over 500 fish we've opened up have had plastic in them.

SPENCER MICHELS: An estimated 1 million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals die each year from eating or becoming entangled in debris, most of it plastic, according to the Pacific Marine Mammal Center.

But so far, despite work at Moore's laboratory, he can't prove his suspicions that the plastic is killing fish and sea birds.

MYRA FINKELSTEIN, University of California, Santa Cruz: So then that's from a Laysan albatross.

BILL HENRY, University of California, Santa Cruz: This is from a Laysan...

SPENCER MICHELS: Scientists at the University of California at Santa Cruz are studying how much plastic albatross eat and then pass on to their offspring. Albatross are large seabirds that cover thousands of miles scavenging for food. Millions of them live in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, a national marine sanctuary, where Bill Henry and Myra Finkelstein collect samples.

MYRA FINKELSTEIN: This is really sort of scary, because look how sharp that is.

BILL HENRY: That could puncture something for sure.

SPENCER MICHELS: They examine the indigestible stomach contents of albatross chicks, known as a bolus. It's a messy but revealing undertaking.

MYRA FINKELSTEIN: Their body cavities are full of huge chunks of many types of plastics, from toothbrushes to bottle caps to needles and syringes. They can't get them up. They can't get them out. And it's heartbreaking.

Extent of damage undetermined

SPENCER MICHELS: Finkelstein is focusing her research on the toxicity of the plastics.

MYRA FINKELSTEIN: A very big concern is that these plastic compounds leech toxic materials. There is not a lot of research that's being done for albatross at least to say, "Well, how many birds actually die from plastic ingestion?" It's a very, very difficult question to answer.

SPENCER MICHELS: Henry is studying the flight patterns of the birds over the Pacific Gyre to try to determine where they are ingesting the plastics.

BILL HENRY: The plastic aggregates in the same spots where their food has aggregated for millions of years. These animals cover so much ocean in search of food, what they bring back can really tell us something about what's going on in the ocean.

SPENCER MICHELS: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, would also like to know what's going on. Holly Bamford, who directs the agency's marine debris program, isn't sure what to make of Charles Moore's research.

HOLLY BAMFORD, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association: There's a lot of stuff out in the ocean, and plastic being one of them. The question is, is the "So what?" factor. What is it actually doing to the organisms? What is it actually doing to the sea birds? Is it actually collecting contaminants and is it going up the food web?

SPENCER MICHELS: She is also skeptical of Moore's claims about the size of the garbage patch.

HOLLY BAMFORD: The convergence zone and the debris that's located there is not twice the size of Texas or is it twice the size of the United States, at least a cohesive mass. I do believe that there is debris out there in various hot spots, but there's also cold spots. You're going to get a variety of answers.

Solution may be on land

SPENCER MICHELS: NOAA is not currently doing most of its own research on plastics, but provides some funding and help to outside scientists and industry groups.

A few federal and state laws, plus some international treaties, have targeted marine debris, but enforcement has been difficult, and spotty, and largely ineffective.

The U.S. government does have a few research studies underway, and they are encouraging voluntary beach cleanup. But the funding has been modest, at least thus far.

As for solutions, Moore, for one, doesn't think the ocean can be cleaned up.

CHARLES MOORE: It's just too large an area. All the navies of the world using all the nets of the world with all the fishing fleets of the world would not even make a dent in it.

SPENCER MICHELS: So the solution may be on land. Santa Monica has tried to clean up its beaches so urban runoff doesn't end up in the sea.

KIM O'CAIN, Santa Monica Water Resources: That water is picking up whatever is in the street, whether it's leaves, debris, like plastic bags, and we're collecting it here.

SPENCER MICHELS: In 1997, the city built a first-of-its-kind $12 million water runoff treatment and recycling plant that traps large debris before it flows into the ocean. Last year, the system collected nearly 40,000 pounds of trash, much of it plastic.

But the problem is larger than collecting waste, argues Joe Garbarino, who runs a recycling center and garbage service near San Francisco. It's the continual manufacture of more plastic, especially bags.

JOE GARBARINO, Marin Sanitary Service: Either quit making it or put enough of a deposit on it, like 25 cents a bag. When you get the bag from wherever you get it, you pay your 25 cents. When you bring it back, you get your money back. Or quit making, which is the best thing that we can possibly do for the environment.

More recycling necessary

SPENCER MICHELS: The American Chemistry Association, which represents plastic manufacturers, thinks recycling is the answer. Steve Russell is managing director of the plastics division.

STEVE RUSSELL, American Chemistry Council: Keep debris from getting into the marine environment to begin with, to cut it off at its source. And, secondly, we believe that the public needs additional opportunities to recycle, particularly away from home.

SPENCER MICHELS: But Moore and some environmentalists fear voluntary recycling won't solve huge potential problems, including the likelihood that humans will be ingesting poisonous plastics.

He intends to keep sailing into the gyre to document the danger. He says he's already achieved one goal: to alert the public and scientists to a problem that previously was receiving scant attention.