Project Kaisei hopes to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch
"Mary Crowley really wants to go out there with big boats and get big pieces of plastic out," Moore said. "I'm not really opposed to that, but it's a lot of time and money that could be spent trying to stop the waste getting there in the first place. It's like having a leaking faucet and bailing out the sink rather than calling the plumber. The time has come for society to draw a line in the sand and say no more plastic. Our plastic footprint is causing more problems than our carbon footprint."
Moore believes it's time to withdraw from globalized production and support locavore and slow-food movements instead. "We send stuff to be produced in the cheapest locations possible, package it in plastic, then send it back here. It's nuts," he said.
But Crowley says not all plastic use is bad, even as she advocates for getting larger pieces of plastic out of the water, and supporting companies that use less on no packaging.
"Plastic is an amazing material for construction and railroad ties, decking, and some medical uses," she said. "It's just not right material for throw-away items because it lasts for centuries. I subscribe to oceanographer Sylvia Earle's view that a plastic bottle can last for 500 to 600 years. That's why it's important to get out these bigger pieces of plastic. We don't want them broken down in the belly of a whale or the stomach of an albatross."
Studies suggest that 100,000 marine mammals — possibly more — along with thousands of sea birds die each year from debris entanglement, and that thousands more marine mammals, sea birds, fish and sea turtles die from ingesting marine debris, including plastic bags, which bear an unfortunate resemblance to jellyfish, once in water.
Crowley recalls how in 2009, when Project Kaisei had 25 people on board, including scientists, sailors, filmmakers, graduate students, and engineers, the team was surprised to find plastic in sampling taken 400 miles off the West Coast.
"We were anticipating clean water," Crowley said. In the end, the project's research vessel, the Kaisei, whose name means "ocean star" in Japanese, and the New Horizon, a Scripps Institute vessel that participated in the project's first mission, found some plastic in every single trawl.
"A lot was smaller microparticulates of plastics and preproduction plastic pellets," Crowley said, noting that she also saw Clorox bottles, plastic bags, ghost nets, toothbrushes, children's toys, and plastic chairs floating on, or lurking up to nine feet below the surface of the ocean.
"If you're in still water, you sometimes see confetti-like pieces of plastic. And if you're up on the crow's nest and going two to three knots, you see bigger pieces," she said.
No one knows exactly how many bits of debris are already floating in the ocean or have been ground up into tiny particles on our beaches. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration notes that, to date, "there has not been a comprehensive marine debris abundance assessment for the world's oceans, or even for a single ocean."
Moore's foundation says 80 percent of marine debris comes from land and only 20 percent from marine-related activities like fishing. To Crowley's mind, the main problem is that only 5 percent to 7 percent of plastics are recycled.
"Plastic was invented in the 1880s to replace ivory for pool balls and didn't proliferate until the last 60 years," she said. "But even when plastic is dumped into a landfill, it has this insidious way of blowing about and ending up in drains, rivers, and oceans because plastic is a very light, easy material to move around."