Oceans #2: The Man Who Started Talking About Plastic Pollution
The story of ocean plastic, at least the one we talk about now, began 20 years ago. Before then, nobody was making noise about how our oceans were filling up with with this everlasting nuisance. One man changed this when he showed the world what damage we were causing.
In this episode, we talk to the man himself, captain Charles Moore. And we ask: just how urgent is ocean plastic pollution? Is it as important as climate change?
Check out the Oceans series page for complementary resources & bonus materials.
Produced by Camille Duran
Published by Eleen Murphy
Senior Editors Eleen Murphy & Camille Duran
Music Credits: License by Ins. Green White Space.
Picture source: The Telegraph
Camille Duran [CD]: Ok Eleen are you ready?
Eleen Murphy [EM]: I am!
CD: This is real now, we said we would start this ocean series with a theme many human beings are talking about right now.
CD: It’s something we humans are ingesting on a daily basis, without even knowing it.
EM: humans & animals actually
CD: Right. Not only do we touch it and eat it, we also put it on our body all the time, it’s in our clothes, in our cosmetics…
EM: It’s everywhere in our lives
CD: And it’s also everywhere in the ocean.
CD: Plastic. Ocean plastic, Eleen. We promised we would tell crazy stories, we would investigate, infiltrate, hide microphones sometimes even – all this with the mission to bring clarity. Clarity on what needs to happen right now to solve this planetary emergency. And Here we are, chapter one.
EM: Chapter one, baby!
CD: You know, I feel we should have picked a subject a little bit easier to deal with to be frank.
CD: A subject like.. Ocean Plankton for instance.
EM: Right….Not sure it would get the same interest…
CD: Hi everyone and welcome to episode thirty-three of our series on Ocean Plankton. I am your host Jimmy Shrimp-
EM: Okay okay, let’s get started now, we have a lot on our plate.
CD: Right, Sorry. Yes, so some of you have asked how many episodes we are going to dedicate to ocean plastic and actually we’re not sure. We do not know. It could easily go up to 10 or 15 episodes. Who knows how far the wind of change will take us.
EM: Yes, because we have a lot of stories already!
CD: Like the story of how plastic in the sand makes baby turtles turn from female to male.
EM: What? really? haven’t heard that one.
CD: Yes true story, or the story of the hidden GPS tracking device following a plastic container across continents all the way to… A place you will uncover.
CD: Or the dark side of something we cannot talk about yet otherwise they are going to cancel our upcoming meetings.
EM: Okay, okay, the point is: you’d better push that subscribe button.
CD: Yes, open your favourite podcast app, search ‘Green Exchange’, subscribe and share with your friends and colleagues.
EM: It’s not even physically hard.
CD: It only takes one finger.
EM: Or…two at the most…
PLASTIC SOUP: HOW MUCH POLLUTION IS LEAKING INTO THE OCEAN?
CD: Now, time to get our hands dirty
EM: I guess we can just put them into the ocean then?
CD: Yeah…the problem is, I am in Brussels.
EM: Ah, that’s right, how is it going by the way?
CD: We’ll talk about it. In due time…again.
EM: You don’t want to share anything.
CD: I don’t want to get anyone lost, that’s all. As you know, we are going to unpack the European debate later on in the series, in relation to the upcoming Plastic Strategy to be put forward by the EU institutions. All I can tell you is that the European Commission staff is being bombarded with meeting requests, invitations, papers etc. mainly from industry who is trying to defend its interests I suppose.
CD: So it’s hot at the moment.
EM: I can only imagine, can’t wait to unpack all this!
CD: Let’s go then!
EM: Where should we start?
CD: I thought we should start from the visible part of the problem.
EM: Millions and millions of tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean every year.
CD: Good place to start. Because this is what we see in the first place. That’s the story we are all usually starting from. The albatros with plastic caps in the stomach, the big plastic gyres in the ocean.
EM: At this point I think everyone has seen images or videos of what’s going on.
CD: Yes, and in case you need more material on this we prepared a few links for you in the episode notes. But let me ask you this: what is the first thought that comes to mind when you see all that trash in the ocean?
EM: That we should clean this up.
CD: Right, logical reaction. Cleaning up. But here is the thing: we said we would not talk about cleanup remember?
[Audio segment from Episode #1]
EM: That’s still the plan right? Focusing on closing the tap?
CD: It is, but I realised one thing over the last few weeks. There are a lot of people who think we actually can cleanup the ocean.
EM: That’s true.
CD: Including policy makers and industry professionals, there is a lot of confusion on this. And most importantly, it’s taking too much attention away from the most productive areas of action.
EM: Like working upstream, on where all this plastic waste is coming from.
CD: Exactly, so then I thought, if we want to be comprehensive in our approach and truly advance the discussion, we should cover this issue once and for all. Can we cleanup the ocean?
EM: I don’t really know actually, technically I mean… how much can we clean…? So we should spend a bit of time on this today?
CD: I think so.
EM: Then we can focus on closing the tap without any regret.
CD: Yeah, let’s do this. And you know what? I scanned through 7.5 Billion people living on Planet Earth and I found THE person we need for a solid answer to this cleanup question. Someone who studied hard this very topic. She’s called Kim Martini and we’ll talk to her later on.
Kim Martini [KM]: And members of the Journal of Science community said “Look, can you do an independent review of this, because we really want to know whether this is real, because this is promising a lot”.
EM: I can’t wait, and what do we start with ?
CD: I was thinking of taking you up on a balloon. High up in the sky – figuratively. Just so we can take a bit of perspective before we put our head back in the water.
EM: Oh man, I’ve always wanted to take a ride on one of them! And yes, may be worth doing some contextualising.
CD: Let’s go, you want to pull that rope thing?
[Air balloon launches].
CD: Wow, my hair!
CD: I haven’t asked you if you’re afraid of heights.
EM: Well it’s too late now!
CD: I guess we’re trying to understand where this plastic problem stands among all the challenges we have to solve on this poor Planet.
EM: It’s a good idea, sometimes I don’t think we realise how big the issue is, or its implications. When did we start talking about ocean plastic by the way? Obviously it has become a hot topic now, but how long have we known this for?
CD: Well, it’s been about 20 years i would say. Actually, it’s been exactly 20 years that Captain Charles Moore has found the Great Pacific Garbage patch.
EM: Charles Moore! I love that guy.
CD: Yes, for those of you who don’t know him, Charles Moore is an oceanographer and racing boat captain. Since his first publications in 1997, he has become an icon of the movement, drew tons of media attention to the issue of ocean plastic, millions and millions of views on YouTube. He also conducted years of research, drove campaigns and more. Of course, many other people have also been active on the issue since then but, yeah, he has been a prominent voice on the subject matter.
EM: So we have around twenty years of awareness. It feels like a lot.
CD: Yes, and in twenty years, Charles Moore has not gotten more optimistic. I talked to him last week actually
EM: You talked to Charles Moore?
CD: Yes, I thought it would be good to exchange a few thoughts.
CD: Hah, he is a real Captain.
EM: What do you mean?
CD: Well, tone of voice of a captain, he behaves like a captain, he uses captain words…
EM: Haha, really?
CD: Yeah. Like, I asked him what’s the weather like in California today… just to small talk for a second… and here is what he replied.
CM: It is tropical, but Southern California weather for summer, with a little bit of tropical moisture, but warm. The clouds are clearing, they’re mostly inland, and people got some rain. But yeah…basically clear and sunny.
EM: That is a real Captain answer!
CD: Yes, no doubt I was talking to Charles Moore.
PLASTIC POLLUTION: STOP TALKING ABOUT CLEAN UP
CD: So I started by telling him about what we were planning for our investigation, and he cut me right away and said:
CM: Are you going to look at the causes for all that in a more deep manner? I mean, I’m getting tired of the beach cleanup, plastic bag ban mentality. We’ve got to attack the cause of the entire peking rationale of the current system. It’s losing its rational.
CD: I was not expecting this comment from him, and so we got into a big picture discussion, basically.
CM: The human condition is not improving anymore under competitive economic scenarios. The alternative energy sector has developed faster than the petroleum industry expected, which means they’re going to be focusing on other uses of petroleum other than fuel. And it’s becoming plastic as that alternative. And that alternative means that the junk we create – that lasts for seconds, gets discarded and has no afterlife or take-back infrastructure – is going to be the salvation of capitalism.
CD: Yes, this can come out as strong words, but we’ll talk more about it and you will connect the dots. For now, the only point I want to make here is that once you start looking into plastic, you arrive very quickly at systemic discussions that touch on economic models of our societies, world trade, biology, health, human rights etc.
EM: I see.
CD: And those bigger picture challenges are very difficult to ignore.
EM: I think I see where you’re going with this: we easily fall into band aid solutions because we don’t want to address the bigger picture.
CD: Exactly. You know the drill. And that’s why everyone like to talk about cleaning up the ocean for instance. Because this way we don’t have to change anything, we can just hope for cleanup technology & people to fix it.
CD: Anyway, back to Charles Moore, we talked for a few minutes about this and then got into other questions. Like, I also wanted to get a sense for how fast the amount of ocean plastic is increasing – since he has been following this from the beginning.
CM: We have a fifteen year timeline in the northern hemisphere, and in the stations we monitor in the North Pacific garbage patch, we’ve seen a sixty-fold increase in fifteen years. We’re just getting ready to publish this. But that’s by count. And it’s in the several hundreds by weight. It’s exponentially increasing in the North Pacific. Like I said, it looks like a polluted harbour, a dirty beach, out in the middle of the ocean for hundreds of kilometres.
EM: Sixty times more than fifteen years ago?
CD: Yes, by count. And in the hundreds by weight.
EM: Wow so it’s a biggie.
CD: Yes. That’s not a small issue.
PLASTIC POLLUTION: AS IMPORTANT AS CLIMATE CHANGE?
CM: There’s tremendous parity there between what’s happening with the planetary disruption by climate change, and the disruption of the marine environment by plastic. The marine environment is much larger than the land environment, it has much more habitat, and that habitat is completely being very insidiously penetrated by these synthetic polymers of every shape, size, colour and type. And it’s mimicking natural food and it’s acting like a predator – so it’s both predator and prey. As predator it tangles and it kills by making it impossible for creatures to move – it strangles them.
And as prey it kills by being consumed, absorbing all these pollutants and blocking digestive tracts – it’s basically putting the ocean on a plastic diet. It’s killing the albatross with plastic bottle caps, who are feeding them to their chicks, and the chicks die with plastic bottle caps in their stomachs. For that reason, I think we have to have this plastic conversation.
CD: And as you, we are going to reach a point where there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean. Industry is telling us we should expect production to increase threefold by 2050. So it’s not only what’s out there already but it’s also looking at the trends.
EM: So do you think that although ocean plastic is getting a lot of coverage at the moment… it’s not enough?
CD: I would say It’s probably not getting the amount of constructive discussions it deserves.
CM: It needs to be ranked as a planetary emergency along with chemical pollution, climate change, and nuclear proliferation.
CD: I don’t think this is overstated, actually.
EM: No probably not.
CD: So, on the framing part, that’s the first point I wanted us to make today. Ocean Plastic is not a small issue that is killing a couple of turtles and birds.
EM: It’s a planetary emergency.
CD: Yes. The theme is definitely getting more and more traction, a lot of us are talking about it, producing media, films, etc. But still, it’s far from being enough. Industry and public authorities really need to put their sh*t together, and quick.
[Landing the balloon sound]
CD: Alright we’re going to land now!
EM: Do you actually know what you’re doing?
CD: I am usually better at take offs than landings…
EM: Ohhhh god.
CD: Alright so, hang on…. There you go, nice and soft.
EM: Nice one, you may have a career as a balloon pilot!
CD: Right, I’m actually thinking about it.
EM: So, where to start? Shouldn’t we start by cleaning the ocean?
CD: [strong French accent]: You’re pulling my leg???
EM: [Laughs]. Yes I am!
CD: Okay, let’s demonstrate once and for all that ocean cleanup is the wrong battle to fight. Period.
EM: Alright, convince me. Hey, I feel like a Myth Buster!
CD: A myth buster…Oh, you give me an idea. One second! That’s right…just wait one second…
[Ghostbusters theme plays].
EM: Oh no…what have I started? I’ve created a monster.
CD: Okay, here is what we’re going to do. Thanks for the idea! I see it now
Through this investigation, Eleen, we are going to dismantle a lot of harmful narratives. Okay? That’s the plan. Like the plastic eating bug story, or oh, plastic helps us fight climate change or … we can cleanup the ocean. All those are myths we are going to bust.
CD: We are myth busters.
CD: Well here it is:
[Ghostbusters music plays]
CD: That’s the new jingle for our myth busting episodes. Come on let’s practice a couple of times.
EM: Camille, people are going to hate us.
CD: Everyone loves this song!
[Eleen and Camille sing the song].
EM: Okay, let’s get this over with. Onto the myth busting now!
CD: No, no, no, we are going to close that episode and start a new one called: myth busting: We can cleanup the ocean or something like that.
EM: Alright, a new episode then…