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Captain Charles Moore 

Fighting the plastic plague in the Deep Blue Sea

Wednesday, Jul 23 2008
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Captain Charles Moore rips open a Ziploc bag and sinks his calloused sailor’s hand into the bag’s colorful mush. “This is the new sand,” says the heavy-lidded 60-year-old boatman, surfer and scientist from his lush backyard in Belmont Shore. “The new plastic sand.”

Kevin Scanlon

(Click to enlarge)

click to enlarge KEVIN SCANLON

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Moore, on the back patio of the bay-side home that has been in his family since he was 2, shows me a handful of millet- to peanut-sized pebbles in 101 colors — an unsettling mix of blues, pinks, oranges and purples among the fewer bits of brown, black and white sand. For any surfer or ocean lover, it’s a stomach-turning display.

“This stuff was a foot thick on Kamilo Beach,” he says, while sitting within sight of his black-plaster minimoat and the Booth cherimoya and avocado trees in his yard. “Kamilo Beach is on the big island of Hawaii. It’s the southernmost point in the U.S. You need a four-wheel-drive to get there. And this is the amount of plastic we found washing ashore.”

For more than 13 years, Moore has been a pioneer in tracking ocean waste — particularly the scourge of plastic pollution. In 1994, he founded the Long Beach–based Algalita Marine Research Foundation to study marine contaminants, after realizing he could no longer exercise in toxic Alamitos Bay, a once-thriving ecosystem he’d been swimming in for his entire life. Since then, Moore, a lifelong chemistry nut and former high-end woodworker for 25 years, has done everything from monitoring nearby water safety and starting a local branch of the Surfrider Foundation to writing scientific papers on plastic in the Pacific. Moore says he’s logged more than 80,000 miles aboard Algalita — the 50-foot aluminum-hulled research catamaran he built in 1995 — in search of the plastic menace.

“And it’s not just the microchunks,” Moore continues, pulling out more Kamilo Beach specimens and dumping onto a table a pile of plastic trash: umbrella handles, toothbrushes, Magic Markers, Popsicle sticks, a shark-chewed oil jug, the stomach contents from a 4-month-old albatross. “It’s like the checkout counter of a convenience store,” he notes, while perusing the bottle caps, golf balls, chunks of plastic trays and tofu tubs.

But nothing can top the massive patch of plastic he found back in 1997, when he was sailing in the L.A.-to-Hawaii Transpacific Yacht Race.

“Was it really twice the size of Texas?” I ask of the floating pollution field that came to be known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or the Eastern Garbage Patch, and brought Moore and the problems of indestructible plastic waste international attention.

“Actually,” Moore corrects me, “it’s twice the size of the U.S. That’s the area I’ve seen personally. But the patch is more like the size of Africa. And the plastic is dispersed. It’s not something you can walk across. A lot of people get that impression.”

Moore, who sounds like Jeff Goldblum with a dash of Spicoli, points out that just because the endless miles of plastic aren’t a dense swamp of water bottles and discarded diapers — though he has witnessed 5-meter-wide windrows* of debris stretching for miles — all those tiny pieces of plastic are just as insidious as any floating milk jug.

“Plastic is lipophilic, which means it’s oil-loving,” Moore says while pouring me a glass of fresh guava juice in his Roseanne-chic kitchen. “Plastic is what you use in an oil spill. Any oily pollutant is naturally drawn to plastic. So you have all these plastic poison pills carrying up to a million times the pollutants that are found in the surrounding seawater.”

The resulting effect on the planet? For starters, try a world fish population filled with rising levels of plastic, DDT and other pesticides. (“There’s no such thing as organic sushi anymore,” Moore says.) He also believes phenomena like lowered sperm counts, respiratory problems and the spike in autism, diabetes and obesity are a direct result of the growing infiltration of plastic compounds into the food chain.

Moore’s mojo for adventure and chemistry was passed down from his late father, who, at 18, drove a Prohibition-era Model T from Denver to Ensenada, where he was shanghaied onto a rum-running boat before eventually settling in Belmont Shore with Moore’s mother. Her father started Hancock Oil. Moore claims his father became the first radio weatherman in L.A., before working as a chemist for years at Hancock Oil.

“Instead of watching TV,” recalls Moore, “my dad brought home chemicals from work, and we’d do experiments. I did my first experiment — the hydrogen bark — when I was about 5.”

Moore shuffles to a cluttered workroom, where he keeps his three surfboards, and proudly shows me a faded photo of him surfing double-overhead Tamarindo. That’s when I decide to tell him how his scientific inquiries had a profound effect on me when I came across his story.

“I instantly became more mindful about my plastic use,” I confess. “I used the same Styrofoam cup for two weeks.”

“I’m not saying we should stop using plastic altogether,” Moore says. Indeed, I spot more than one plastic cup in his kitchen. “We need to follow the three R’s: Reduce — let’s use less of the stuff. Reuse — plastic can be reused a lot. And then, at the end of its useful life, we should recycle it. We’ve got a product here that lasts forever. I’m saying let’s be smart about it.”

 
*Spelling corrected from “windows” on July 24, 2008

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