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Talking with Plastic Pollution Fighting Rockstar Charles Moore

This is part two Stiv Wilson's tour to better understand how plastic ends up in the ocean. Read the first installment here.

I meet Captain Charles Moore in front of his house in Southern California on a sunny afternoon. Across the street is his sailing research vessel, the very boat that has taken several missions to the North Pacific Gyre with him as skipper. It’s because of Charles Moore that you (hopefully) have heard about the enormous garbage patch in the Pacific. From the deck of Moore’s catamaran is where at least half the images you’ve seen of this marine eco-disaster have been taken.

Moore originally discovered the Pacific plastic garbage flotilla in 1997 and despite first attempts at outreach, few paid attention to him. Now, after more than ten years of work the issue is finally getting some traction and he’s making regular appearances on talk shows such as David Letterman's and Stephen Colbert's. If ever there was such a thing as a plastic pollution fighting rockstar, Moore is the front man of the band.

I’m a bit nervous as I step onto Moore's vessel, the Alguita. To me, Charles Moore is a hero. He’s an inspiration. As we begin to talk, I realize that he’s really just an ordinary guy who saw something wrong in the world and is trying to make a an extraordinary difference. Though singularly remarkable, Moore's humility pervades everything thing he says; whenever he talks about the mission, he always uses the pronoun, "we."

Also talking to Moore is a kiwi named Hayden, who is working on plastic issues in New Zealand and as the two talk, I take great delight at Moore’s invitation to explore his ship. As Hayden and Charlie wrap up their conversation, Moore and I talk about the recent expedition (a collaboration between Algalita and the organizations I work for, 5Gyres) to the Atlantic that I was part of, and later, at the Algalita office I show him pictures of what we found in the Atlantic Garbage Patch. He fixates on them. He's not happy to see it there, in full color, as well. Then the phone rings. Moore doesn’t typically work in the Algalita office, but he’s happy to put on a headset and play secretary when around. As he talks to the person on the other end of the line he cracks jokes. He’s quick witted. The call is a request for him to speak at some engagement or another. After the call he remarks that he needs an agent because the requests are becoming more and more frequent. I joke that I’m happy I got to him just in time, and he says, “Oh no, that’s a request for a speaking engagement, I’ll always do the interviews.”

When Moore talks, you listen. He’s got an encyclopedic knowledge of plastic issues, oceanography, and polymer chemistry. He's unafraid of the industry lobby that produces this single use garbage, and he's not afraid to call a spade a spade. He's a bull in a special interest china shop. But it's his pragmatism informed by more than a decade of empirical evidence that makes him so resolute. “Humanity's plastic footprint is just as bad if not worse than its carbon footprint. Plastic pollution is as serious or more serious than global warming,” he says, noticing a bunch of floating plastic at the stern of his boat between one pontoon and the dock to which the Alguita is tied. The irony of finding plastic pollution in the ocean across the street from his home sandwiched between the boat and the dock is not lost on either of us and with veiled disgust he utters, “We’ve reached millions, but we need to reach billions.”

Check the video interview of Moore talking about the history of plastic pollution in the Pacific. It’s a bit on the longish side, but it does a great job of explaining the issue in detail.


Stiv Wilson is a freelance writer/photographer and the communications director for the Project. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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