Monday, November 14, 2011

Captain Charles Moore's New Book, "Plastic Ocean"

I first learned of Captain Charles Moore in a Discovery Channel documentary in 2009. He was strolling the plastic sand at Hawaii's infamous Kamilo Beach, exposing the realities of a plastic society. Since then, he and the pioneering work of his non-profit, Algalita Marine Research Foundation, have loomed large in the back of my mind & in my efforts. It looms still larger, now that I've just finished his brand-new "Plastic Ocean" (with collaborator Cassandra Phillips).

"Plastic Ocean" is something of an enigma -- as I imagine Capt. Moore to be. It's part personal narrative, part adventure tale, part history/science lecture, part manifesto. It follows no real chronology. But it thinks big. In it, Moore cuts a broad (and occasionally deep) swath through the invention of plastics, methods of plastic production, international treaties on plastic dumping, scientific literature listing the ills of plastic, collaborations with scientists & artists, joint ventures, a walk-through of how a scientific paper gets into peer-reviewed journals. And he sums it up with a clarion call for a complete rethinking of what it means for a society to be prosperous and successful.

No small work, this.

Its 337 pages take the reader through turbulent swells, doldrums blazing with hot sun and heavy air, refreshing dips in clear lagoons. An occasional statement threatens to capsize the whole thing. (He cites the "100,000 animals killed each year" figure, which has been floating around as an untested number since 1984. He also raises the spectre of plastic pellets being used to fatten cattle, although various searches reveal only a grainy newspaper article from 1971 about this being tried.) Yet somehow it all works, and the pages keep turning.

In the end, this is a love story. A vision & memory of wide seas, roaring surf, sparkling beaches. Simpler times and tastes, before the throwaway world, when people made crafts -- and crafted things were built to last. Every good love story has its crisis. And of course the crisis here is plastic waste, and its attendant soup of toxic chemicals that foul seas, beaches, & marine life. But plastic itself is not the villain. Cheap, disposable plastics and the companies who shamelessly make, promote, and defend them in spite of mounting evidence of their harm -- these cast the shadow across this text. Moore has no love for the American Chemistry Council or bottling giant Coca-Cola. He has little patience for organizations who receive large checks from them and still profess to be seriously working on the problem of plastic pollution.

Moore also devotes many pages to exposing the still-growing destruction caused by fishing debris -- decimated coral reefs, dead & injured sea creatures, hazards to shipping & sailing. (The latter of which he experienced first-hand and recounts vividly.) He shows convincingly that international treaties such as MARPOL Annex V (1988) are toothless tigers, flouted by many rogue fishing fleets still today.

"Plastic Ocean" is literally chock-a-bloc with facts and figures. Sadly, with no footnotes it's hard for a reader to take further steps to delve into these figures themselves. (It does contain a well-stocked general bibliography at the back.) Moore notes this as a conscious choice, but his logic isn't exactly satisfying. Still, this book is a powerful wake-up call to a modern dystopia of our own making. It's a great introduction for people who are just learning of the problem. And even seasoned plastic-pollution fighters will find details & angles that they hadn't considered before.

As the pages turn, and solution after solution is vetted -- and shot down -- the scale of the problem and the need to change the game at the source becomes ever more clear. We cannot quickly clean up the mess we've made. There's no way to do it. We just have to stop adding to it.

Capt. Moore writes, "The seductive idea that the more we consume, the better off we'll be has timed out, and the Plastic Ocean is one of many witnesses to this fact... The ocean planet will thank you if you help end its plastic plague." I can't tell whether he looks to the future with optimism or pessimism. Either way, his words ring true.


  1. Saw Captain Moore interviewed on the WGBH program Greater Boston, recently. His observations were compelling.

  2. Sorry I missed it! I'll see if it's on the Web site. He's got a kind of gravity -- he's been there, seen it, swum in it, knows it's the real deal.

  3. The interview was broadcast on Nov. 8th

    The link:

    In the vent link doesn't work, you can scroll through back episodes

  4. Hi there Harry,
    I was just searching the net for lobster trap tags and your site came up. Thanks so much for the information on tags. I myself collect tags and then make them into bracelets to sell. I find them fascinating. Possibly because they're one of the only things that wash up on the beach that have a date marked on them from when they were created. Sorry to post this on a different post but my computer wasn't cooperating with posting on the Lobster Trap Tags post. I think what you're doing is fantastic. It really breaks my heart the way that consumerism is polluting the ocean. Hopefully what you're doing will help raise awareness. Also glad I'm not the only one who collects trash off the beach :) Best of luck. Here's to making the ocean's future a little brighter.