The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

March 17, 2010

Captain Moore Paints a Bleak Picture for David Letterman. Now What?

Did you guys see Captain Charles Moore on the David Letterman show Monday night? He laid it all out — the complete picture of what our plastic waste is doing to the ocean and ultimately the food we eat and the climate we depend on — in his usual direct style. I’m amazed that Letterman devoted the entire last two segments of the show to this comprehensive discussion and handled it very seriously. If you didn’t see it, please take some time and watch it now.

Here are some of the main points from the first segment, which for some of you will be review and for others will be a revelation:

  • The trash in the North Pacific Gyre (Great Pacific Garbage Patch) is not a “floating island” as so many people think but is more dispersed.  It’s more like a soup than an island.
  • The trash is 90% plastic.
  • The trash has been accumulating ever since the dawn of the disposable plastic age in the 1950’s.
  • 25% of the trash is debris from ships, but 75% of it comes from land-based sources.
  • After just 3 days of tracking trash down the L.A. and San Gabriel rivers, Captain Moore found 2.3 billion pieces of trash weighing 30 tons on its way to the ocean.
  • Plastic in the sea is a source of pollutants as well as a sponge.
  • As a source, plastic in the ocean breaks down into smaller pieces via photodegradation, and the sea water leaches softeners (often toxic phthalates) out of it that then pollute the water.
  • Like a sponge, plastics soak up other pollutants [like PCB and DDT] from the surrounding seawater which are then ingested by marine animals that mistake it for food.
  • Ultimately, we consume these pollutants when we eat fish.
  • Plastic bags can smother and bleach coral.
  • Plastic has been found throughout the water column, which has an average depth of two miles.
  • Plastic in the ocean may interrupt gas transpiration, which is how we sequester CO2.
  • There’s a “snowball’s chance in hell” that we can actually clean it up.  It would be like sifting the Sahara Desert.

That’s just segment 1.

Moore: You see it in every vacant lot in the cities; we’re creating this new plastic planet.

Letterman: You want a drink?

Moore: Sure, what you got there?

Segment 2 is more of a show-and-tell.  Moore shows Letterman a bowl of tiny plastic pieces gathered from Camillo Beach in Hawaii:  the new plastic sand, what our beaches are becoming.  He also presents a collection of plastic objects that have been swallowed by an albatross chick: cigarette lighters, fishing lures, bottle caps, a toothbrush, comb, golf ball, marker, and various other plastic detritus.

Astute Letterman asks:

People may be saying, “I can get through the day without worrying about an albatross,” but this is really the tip of the iceberg, isn’t it?


Are we just screwed?  There’s no getting around it?

Finally, Moore’s last statement at the tail end of the interview gives a sliver of a solution:

We need to make plastic into stuff we really want to last forever.  Plastic lasts a long, long time. Let’s make stuff out of it that we want to be around, and if we have to have throwaways, let’s make them completely biodegrade so you can throw them into the compost pile and get rid of them.

Big audience applause.  The End.

Whew.  I found the interview powerful and yet depressing, and I wondered if the casual, uninformed viewer would come away with a commitment to make a difference or the feeling that we’re “just screwed” so why try?  I fear the latter.  Which is why I think it’s so important to talk about real world solutions along with such bad news.  What steps can Letterman’s viewers take immediately and in the future?  If we can’t clean up the Garbage Patch, what can we do?

Here are just a few ideas for stemming the tide of new plastic pollution:

1) Commit to reduce our own plastic consumption as much as possible.

2) Talk to our family and friends about the problem and set an example that others can follow.

3) Support measures in our communities to ban plastic bags and other single-use packaging.

4) Support Extended Producer Responsibility legislation which would require manufacturers to provide for the entire life cycle of their products and remove the burden from communities and local governments.  EPR laws in Europe have proven that when companies have to figure out how to recycle their stuff, they end up using fewer, less toxic materials in the first place.

What are some of your ideas? Are there people in your life who are so overwhelmed with the state of the environment that they have thrown up their hands in despair or routinely tune out the bad news? How can we help those in our lives and communities take back their power and actually work for change? How can we encourage others to simply start where they are and take the first step?

These are questions I ask myself every single day, and of course the reason for this blog.  But I’d like to hear your ideas.  What steps do you take to broaden your reach?

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11 years ago

Why did you delete the Charles Moore / Letterman videos!?

11 years ago

Why did you delete the Charles Moore videos?!

Beth Terry
11 years ago

Sorry, I didn’t delete the videos. The person who posted them on youtube removed the videos for some reason and I haven’t been able to find replacements. My blog software automatically puts a line through links that no longer work.

13 years ago

Surprised to see this on late night– A couple years ago I was asked to do concept art for a planned documentary on this phenomenon but never knew what happened to it. The scale asked to render was a bit stupefying but now confirmed…

Any interested folks can see the old art here!

13 years ago

Hey Beth,
His line about how we are crisis-driven reminded me of what one of my Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance professors said. Paraphrasing, ‘In the history of disasters, we have had limited or no preparation time. No warning for earthquakes, maybe a few days for a hurricane, maybe a few weeks for a volcano… but never have we had a disaster in which we have decades of time to prepare. We as a species are unequipped to deal with climate change for this reason. We have literally never dealt with anything like this before.’

Isle Dance
13 years ago

We get waves of plastic trash at times that boggle the mind. Even in the middle of nowhere. It is so sad. Thanks again, for doing what you do.

13 years ago

Since discovering your blog in 2007 we pick up trash every day when we walk the dog, along the beach, and on streets in the neighborhood. Every day we fill a grocery bag. On the down side there’s no end to it, but on the up side we have found over $55, countless redeemables, the area looks cleaner, and several people have come up and thanked us. My parents taught me “Do your share, and then a little bit more”. Thank you Beth, for all you do.

13 years ago

My partner caught this on Letterman and wanted me to watch it on youtube so I’d see how “we’re all doomed.” Oh, I said, Captain Moore. How’d you know about him, my partner wanted to know . . . this despite the Brita campaign and the showyourplastic challenge. I guess it takes Letterman and late night TV to tune my partner. Now he’s excited about reducing plastic.

13 years ago

I live within a few hundred feet of the L.A. River and have been inspired by your blog to go out at least once a week (sometimes more) and pick up plastic trash along it and along a few of the streets that dead-end into it. I don’t even have to bring my own trash bag because there are plenty to choose from. One bag gets filled up so fast. Our curbside recycling is pretty extensive here so I separate out what is really trash and what can go in the blue bin (and beverage containers get recycled at the grocery store –making five cents a pop on those!)

I went out both days of last weekend and was shocked at how much new plastic trash showed up on the same route in less than a day. It’s really sad to see all the plastic bags hanging on trees in the center of the river. I even saw a plastic baby stroller tangled up in one of the trees. Most of the trash I pick up is grocery bags, food wrappers, styrofoam cups, coffee cup lids, straws, big gulp cups and lids, and little kids toys. All things that there are reasonable alternatives for.

I know it’s not much, but what if lots more Angelenos did it too? Especially people who live within close proximity of the river? I’ve never seen anyone else picking up trash while out on these walks. I get exercise (and do lunges when I go to pick something up –gotta save the back) and get to help the ocean at the same time. You would think in a city where so many people claim to be into fitness and the environment, this would be a thing–the routine, individual plastic clean-up instead of just waiting for the big, organized beach/river clean-up. It does make me angry that there is so much plastic there and that people litter so freely and some people have this attitude like, “i do my part, why should i have to pick up after those gross people who litter?” but I figure that the albatross who chokes on the soda straw just knows that people did this to him, and at that point it doesn’t matter who threw it on the ground. Whoever saw it on the ground, knew it could make it to the ocean, and didn’t spend the split second to pick it up is also culpable.

13 years ago

I agree with Billie – I get annoyed whenever I am in Whole Foods and see unnecessary packaging – I have started to write to the company and ask them about packaging for specific products, listing why I won’t buy them until packaging and ingredients are changed. I also pick up trash when I am out – on the sidewalk, along the beach, hiking a trail, etc. Reducing my consumption helps, but not everyone will do this, so there will still be trash blowing around getting into the oceans – picking up misc. trash really makes me fell like I’m making a difference.

13 years ago

I have been getting more demanding at Whole Foods and asking questions like… can I buy chicken that isn’t already wrapped? And I had a conversation with a sales clerk that was puzzled why I was trying to get a hunk of cheese before he wrapped it in plastic.

The clerks have definitely been asking me questions and I think I am finally getting out of my shell.

13 years ago

When I shop for groceries, it’s difficult to find many items that are packaged in something other that plastic. Cereal box liners used to be waxed paper, now plastic. Milk cartons also. And now things like lunch meat are in a plastic bag sealed in a plastic bowl. Crazy. I agree that plastic should be used to the things that we want to last. We still use Tupperware that belonged to my grandmother and she’s be gone for 50 years!
We’ve got to think about our planet. If it costs more to shop thoughtfully, then spend the extra on better product, and buy less over all.

13 years ago

Brilliant! Strangely, this gives me hope.
We need alarm about the environment to become mainstream.
Us 5% freakazoids aren’t going to be able to shift things.
Charles Moore should get a Nobel Prize.

13 years ago

Steps for broadening my reach:
– I told you about my lent-challenge, and when people talk about lent I tell them what I’m doing. I think I got several of my aquaintances thinking, when I left them they had a ‘thinking’ expression in their faces.
– At the moment I’m doing a french class and sometimes we have to make up sentences (for grammar and tense uses), and I made some up with plastic. Everybody was astonished, one woman has already changed her plastic water bottle into a glass bottle.
– quite a few of my friends are interested, but only ‘so much’ and don’t really want to know what’s up. They’re alsonot changing their habits, which makes me sad. However, nagging would mean to lose them, so instead I set a good example.

Eleanor Sommer
13 years ago

Thanks for sharing this. Here on the east coast, we head for bed before Letterman comes on. I am one of those people who CANNOT get through the day without thinking about the albatross, and I am sick about it, but still can’t seem to reduce my plastic waste to the extent that you have, Beth!

I totally agree with Captain Moore’s statement that only items that are built to last should be made out plastics, and those should be made as biodegradable and harmless as possible.

Where is the innovation? Why can’t some enterprising companies and young scientists make containers and bags from bamboo and silica. Skip the plastic polymers. You know if a wasp nest can hold together in a downpour, we can surely find materials to build containers to hold liquids, etc.

13 years ago

I think that focusing on what we CAN do is a good way to keep people motivated. I really liked Food, Inc. that way – it was sort of depressing, but then it ended on an up note that left me feeling like, “We can change this, and I can help!” I think that’s the key. Because so many of us, even self-proclaimed environmentalists, don’t necessarily know how to address these big issues.

This is what is great about you, Beth, is you give us actions that we can take. Cumulative, concrete actions. If it weren’t for you I wouldn’t have stopped using shampoo or reduced my plastic consumption as much as I have.

13 years ago

also makes me think about a way to skim the plastic out of the ocean. I know he said its like having nets bigger than nets can be but if ‘we’ have machines that comb specks of gold out of sand beaches someone should be able to create ocean plastic filter machines. I know a solution is to stop allowing the plastic to get there but there are multiple avenues for change here. Then use resin to make recycled ‘plastic sand’ furniture or something that should be durable.

13 years ago

Wow, how cool is that. Awareness is going mainstream! Yes, so glad Letterman did that segmant b/c even if it gets to only a percentage of viewers it is getting to more people. It would have been nice if Letterman had closed the segment/show with a “in light of this our studio is committed to reducing plastic by….why don’t you too’ sort of thing. In anycase…thanks for sharing!

13 years ago

Thank you, I love this blog, nice to know there are other people who care. I live on Lake Ontario and the ice has finally melted, so tonight I went down on the beach where I live, and my little spec of beach had plastic and styofoam pieces in the gravel, a whole plastic water bottle, three plastic caps etc. I always find plastic on the beach, and hearing Dr. Moore makes me so sad, is there any hope? I am trying so hard not to buy plastic anything but it is really hard. Tomorrow I am trying to make homemade cat food, wish me luck!! greg

13 years ago

I agree that reducing our consumption is critical…in fact, it may be the easiest solution, in theory. In actuality, like Charles Moore said, plastic is a lubricant to our society. Because everything is so global nowadays, things are made of plastic to reduce shipping and fuel costs, since we’re getting our soda and plastic-wrapped fruit from hundreds of miles away. If things were localized, we might be able to support alternative packaging materials, and keep plastics for long-term use applications!

I also think that recycling deserves a chance. It’s always gotten a bad rap, because it causes confusion and isn’t managed properly. However, if the confusing plastics were eliminated (PVC, Polystyrene, “other”…) and recycling programs were kept within the United States and managed efficiently, it could become a viable way to keep some plastic from leaving and even entering the system. It could also act as a “trap,” keeping plastics from blowing away on land out to sea.

Thanks for the clips Beth, I hadn’t seen part 1! Charles Moore is totally my hero!


13 years ago

This is a real public service – I’m sure you will make a link to it part of your website. The captain doesn’t waste any words.

What was most interesting to me is that the bulk of the stuff is coming from rivers that empty into the ocean. It makes me wonder if it might not be possible to capture a good part of the material before it reaches the sea. Isn’t the LA river already channelized? Couldn’t some kind of a trap be set up that would get the majority of plastic debris before it breaks up into the small particles seen in the video? An ounce of prevention is certainly needed when there is no cure.

This river source of the material also means that it is doubly important for those who live in the coastal states to mind what happens to their plastic.

13 years ago

I think it’s great that Letterman brought the Captain on to talk about this very important issue, hopefully now people will be more aware. Thanks for posting!

13 years ago

It’s amazing that this made it to Letterman. And I agree that the statement about only using plastic for permanent items is really good – because when you start trying to minimize plastic use, it looks impossible quick, and people jump to the “good” plastics – legos, like Crunchy Chicken talked about today. Sleds. Not the stuff that’s actually all over – in one block yesterday we picked up an entire shopping bag of plastic food wrappers. Why?

For me, the plastics thing is part of just a general awareness of where thing goes – we started cleaning plastic out of the storm sewers because every spring when the snow melts, we get flooded streetcorners that are hard to bike through, due to trash blocking the grates. Now we pick up trash in general instead of just out of the grates, as part of our regular spring and summer routine.

But it also keeps plastic out of the Mississippi, which keeps it out of the Gulf of Mexico, which keeps it out of the open ocean…and knowing that makes me think about everything else that goes down our sewer grates, and where it comes from, and where it goes.

Sense of Home
13 years ago

Thank you for the video clips, I did not catch this on tv. I read about this back when I was first becoming aware of our plastic problem and I was shocked that it wasn’t all over the news. I’m glad to see it got some time on a popular show.

13 years ago

This is probably one of the single most brilliant things i’ve heard: Let’s make stuff out of it [plastic] that we want to be around, and if we have to have throwaways, let’s make them completely biodegrade so you can throw them into the compost pile and get rid of them.

Simple in France
13 years ago

Thanks for writing on this. I’m out of the country and not a TV watcher, so I’m really glad you put this up here.

And I’m glad it showed up on David Letterman–that’s encouraging at least.

13 years ago

First off – thank you so much for your blog. I learn something new each time I read it. I certainly hope that if we keep putting this information in front of the consumer, maybe it will start to sink in that we cannot continue to sabotage our earth. We need to be better stewards!!

Pure Mothers
13 years ago

Oh Beth, this is just so sad. I think it is great that Capt. Moore got exposure on Letterman. That’s progress towards greater awareness. I make choices everyday when I go into the grocery store. I look at a bag of some organic snack and then think – this bag is plastic and will live forever to fulfill a little snack for my son. So I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, preparing so many things from scratch. It’s overwhelming. I tried to get an organic oil spread for my husband today b/c he’s eating lighter (no butter) but all 4 organic choices had palm oil and I can’t contribute to the destruction of the orangutans habitat. It’e endless and overwhelming. Your focus is on plastic – thank you for what you do – but I’m sure you have other environmental concerns, as do I and your readers: the Canadian seals, gorillas, tigers, whales & dolphins (The Cove), DDT in the Swiss Alps, etc. In the UK I just read that 500 insect, animal and plant species have recently gone extinct. All we can do is bring awareness and a reason to save what we love (and need). Let’s share the reason we need to protect the earth by getting people to reconnect with the earth! Unplug and go climb a tree folks!