On the shores of Vashon Island, southwest of Seattle, the beach looks idyllic. Gulls cry. The tide washes in sand dollars with every step. But pick up a piece of driftwood, and you'll find a something common to coastlines all over the world: plastic.
On this day, a volunteer crew from Puget Soundkeeper Alliance is here to pick up marine debris. Their work is part of the 30th anniversary of International Coastal Cleanup, a month-long annual effort led by the Ocean Conservancy. By day's end, they’ll have picked up some 440 pounds of debris.
But such efforts, a product of the environmental movement’s early days, have not come close to keeping up with the problem of plastic in oceans. With a patch of plastic in the Pacific roughly the size of Texas, and parts of the ocean that contain more of the material than plankton, mankind is confronting a pollution problem that will take creativity to slow down, let alone fix.
And in Washington, legislation to help fight the problem of microplastics – which may make up 92 percent of plastic pollution – have stalled as industry and environmentalists clash over their specifics.
Captain Charlie Moore is an independent voyager and researcher renowned for his work in the eastern North Pacific Gyre, an area thick with floating plastic debris. Since 1999, Moore and his team have logged 15 voyages to the area known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” A more accurate definition of it is “Great Pacific Plastic Soup,” he says. Plastic, large and near microscopic alike, permeates the water column from ocean floor to the surface.
And the problem is getting much worse, he says. On his most recent voyage in 2014, Moore and team set up nets at 11 stations in the North Pacific, as they'd done on previous voyages. “Our nets were so full of plastic they filled up in a half an hour”, he says, filled with computer parts, food containers, and more. The called the huge increase in plastic over the last three years “startling even to me.”