5 Part Series – Los Angeles Times
Published July 30 - Aug. 3, 2006
By Kenneth R. Weiss, Times Staff Writer
August 2, 2006
Plague of Plastic Chokes the Seas
On Midway Atoll, 40% of albatross chicks die, their bellies full
of trash. Swirling masses of drifting debris pollute remote beaches
and snare wildlife.
MIDWAY ATOLL -- The albatross chick jumped to its feet, eyes
alert and focused. At 5 months, it stood 18 inches tall and was
fully feathered except for the fuzz that fringed its head.
All attitude, the chick straightened up and clacked its beak
at a visitor, then rocked back and dangled webbed feet in the
air to cool them in the afternoon breeze.
The next afternoon, the chick ignored passersby. The bird was
flopped on its belly, its legs splayed awkwardly. Its wings drooped
in the hot sun. A few hours later, the chick was dead.
John Klavitter, a wildlife biologist, turned the bird over and
cut it open with a knife. Probing its innards with a gloved hand,
he pulled out a yellowish sac — its stomach.
Out tumbled a collection of red, blue and orange bottle caps,
a black spray nozzle, part of a green comb, a white golf tee and
a clump of tiny dark squid beaks ensnared in a tangle of fishing
"This is pretty typical," said Klavitter, who is stationed
at the atoll for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We
often find cigarette lighters, bucket handles, toothbrushes, syringes,
toy soldiers — anything made out of plastic."
It's all part of a tide of plastic debris that has spread throughout
the world's oceans, posing a lethal hazard to wildlife, even here,
more than 1,000 miles from the nearest city.
Midway, an atoll halfway between North America and Japan, has
no industrial centers, no fast-food joints with overflowing trash
cans, and only a few dozen people.
Its isolation would seem to make it an ideal rookery for seabirds,
especially Laysan albatross, which lay their eggs and hatch their
young here each winter. For their first six months of life, the
chicks depend entirely on their parents for nourishment. The adults
forage at sea and bring back high-calorie takeout: a slurry of
partly digested squid and flying-fish eggs.
As they scour the ocean surface for this sustenance, albatross
encounter vast expanses of floating junk. They pick up all manner
of plastic debris, mistaking it for food.
As a result, the regurgitated payload flowing down their chicks'
gullets now includes Lego blocks, clothespins, fishing lures and
other pieces of plastic that can perforate the stomach or block
the gizzard or esophagus. The sheer volume of plastic inside a
chick can leave little room for food and liquid.
Of the 500,000 albatross chicks born here each year, about 200,000
die, mostly from dehydration or starvation. A two-year study funded
by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showed that chicks
that died from those causes had twice as much plastic in their
stomachs as those that died for other reasons.
The atoll is littered with decomposing remains, grisly wreaths
of feathers and bone surrounding colorful piles of bottle caps,
plastic dinosaurs, checkers, highlighter pens, perfume bottles,
fishing line and small Styrofoam balls. Klavitter has calculated
that albatross feed their chicks about 5 tons of plastic a year
Albatross fly hundreds of miles in their search for food for
their young. Their flight paths from Midway often take them over
what is perhaps the world's largest dump: a slowly rotating mass
of trash-laden water about twice the size of Texas.
This is known as the Eastern Garbage Patch, part of a system
of currents called the North Pacific subtropical gyre. Located
halfway between San Francisco and Hawaii, the garbage patch is
an area of slack winds and sluggish currents where flotsam collects
from around the Pacific, much like foam piling up in the calm
center of a hot tub.
Curtis Ebbesmeyer has been studying the clockwise swirl of plastic
debris so long, he talks about it as if he were tracking a beast.
"It moves around like a big animal without a leash,"
said Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer in Seattle and leading expert
on currents and marine debris. "When it gets close to an
island, the garbage patch barfs, and you get a beach covered with
this confetti of plastic."
Some oceanic trash washes ashore at Midway — laundry baskets,
television tubes, beach sandals, soccer balls and other discards.
Nearly 90% of floating marine litter is plastic — supple,
durable materials such as polyethylene and polypropylene, Styrofoam,
nylon and saran.
About four-fifths of marine trash comes from land, swept by wind
or washed by rain off highways and city streets, down streams
and rivers, and out to sea.
The rest comes from ships. Much of it consists of synthetic floats
and other gear that is jettisoned illegally to avoid the cost
of proper disposal in port.
In addition, thousands of cargo containers fall overboard in
stormy seas each year, spilling their contents. One ship heading
from Los Angeles to Tacoma, Wash., disgorged 33,000 blue-and-white
Nike basketball shoes in 2002. Other loads lost at sea include
34,000 hockey gloves and 29,000 yellow rubber ducks and other
The debris can spin for decades in one of a dozen or more gigantic
gyres around the globe, only to be spat out and carried by currents
to distant lands. The U.N. Environment Program estimates that
46,000 pieces of plastic litter are floating on every square mile
of the oceans. About 70% will eventually sink.
Albatross are by no means the only victims. An estimated 1 million
seabirds choke or get tangled in plastic nets or other debris
every year. About 100,000 seals, sea lions, whales, dolphins,
other marine mammals and sea turtles suffer the same fate.
The amount of plastic in the oceans has risen sharply since the
1950s. Studies show a tenfold increase every decade in some places.
Scientists expect the trend to continue, given the popularity
of disposable plastic containers. The average American used 223
pounds of plastic in 2001. The plastics industry expects per-capita
usage to increase to 326 pounds by the end of the decade.
The qualities that make plastics so useful are precisely what
cause them to persist as trash.
Derived from petroleum, plastics eventually break down into carbon
dioxide and water from exposure to heat and the sun's ultraviolet
On land, the process can take decades, even centuries. At sea,
it takes even longer, said Anthony L. Andrady, a polymer chemist
at the Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina who studies
marine debris. Seawater keeps plastics cool while algae, barnacles
and other marine growth block ultraviolet rays.
"Every little piece of plastic manufactured in the past
50 years that made it into the ocean is still out there somewhere,"
Andrady said, "because there is no effective mechanism to
break it down."
Oceanographers have counted on beachcombers around the world
to help them plot the course of plastic flotsam as it circumnavigates
the globe. Ebbesmeyer has found that some debris gets hung up
for decades in gyres before being spun out into different currents,
flung ashore or picked up by animals.
A piece of plastic found in an albatross stomach last year bore
a serial number that was traced to a World War II seaplane shot
down in 1944. Computer models re-creating the object's odyssey
showed it spent a decade in a gyre known as the Western Garbage
Patch, just south of Japan, and then drifted 6,000 miles to the
Eastern Garbage Patch off the West Coast of the U.S., where it
spun in circles for the next 50 years.
The Hawaiian archipelago, which stretches from the Big Island
of Hawaii westward for 1,500 miles to Kure Atoll, acts like 19
unevenly spaced teeth of a giant comb, snagging debris drifting
around the Pacific. Most of the archipelago's atolls are awash
in plastic junk, as are some beaches on the main islands.
Native Hawaiians, seeking wood for dugout canoes, used to go
to Kamilo Beach at the southernmost tip of the Big Island to collect
enormous logs that had drifted from the Pacific Northwest. Now,
locals like Noni Sanford pick through the debris for novelties
to enter in a trash-art show in Hilo every fall.
Sanford, 58, a free-spirited great-grandmother with long gray
hair pulled back in a ponytail, once won second place for a mobile
fashioned out of fishing line, floats and a colorful palette of
As a lifelong beachcomber, she is fascinated and horrified by
the transformation of Kamilo Beach since she first set foot there
in 1959. She was searching for driftwood with her father, a sculptor.
She remembers seeing a few tires back then. Now, plastic debris
litters the crescent-shaped beach for more than a mile.
"This is nothing," Sanford said, stepping over a pile
of twisted lines and nets. "This used to be 8 and 10 feet
high. Of course, that was three or four cleanups ago."
Sanford and her husband, Ron, have joined in regular cleanup
efforts, organized most recently by Bill Gilmartin, a retired
wildlife biologist who studied monk seals.
"The rule is, don't pick up anything smaller than your fist,"
Gilmartin told a team of volunteers. "Otherwise, it'll take
forever. We'll never be done."
Noni Sanford reached down, scooped up a handful of beach sand
and let it trickle through her fingers. Most of the grainy mix
was bits and pieces of plastic. The beach itself, it seemed, was
turning into plastic.
Cleanup efforts in Hawaii and elsewhere have focused on "ghost
nets," tangles of abandoned fishing lines, nets and traps
that snare and kill marine life.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration dispatches
scuba divers every year to cut tons of these deathtraps off Hawaiian
coral reefs. It's dangerous and costly work. In July 2005, a 145-foot
charter vessel brought in to haul away nets ran aground on the
reef at Pearl and Hermes Atoll, about 100 miles from Midway. The
ship was lost. The Coast Guard flew the 23 divers and crew 1,200
miles back to Honolulu.
If it were easier to find them, it would make sense to round
up the medusas of nets and synthetic lines at sea before they
snagged on coral reefs and endangered monk seals and other coastal
But the Pacific spans millions of square miles, and even the
debris circulating in the Eastern and Western garbage patches
is often diffuse and hard to see, bobbing just below the surface.
Connecting the two patches is a ribbon of oceanic highway that
stretches 6,000 miles, an extension of Japan's Kuroshio Current
heading east. Oceanographers call this the Subtropical Convergence
Zone, where the cold, green, heavier waters from the north slide
under the warm, blue waters of the south.
A team of scientists working on NOAA's GhostNet Detection Project
suspected that flotsam collected along this line, making it an
ideal place to concentrate cleanups. Yet they couldn't be sure.
They needed to see it.
The team got its chance last year, after persuading NOAA to lend
them an instrument-packed, four-engine reconnaissance plane often
deployed to study hurricanes. Wearing life jackets while flying
1,000 feet above the ocean's surface, observers were positioned
at windows to spot nets and floats. They were to call out each
sighting over the plane's intercom. Others were poised to jot
down the location of each sighting.
"When we got into it, we couldn't write fast enough,"
said Tim Veenstra, an Alaskan pilot and private researcher working
with government scientists. The meandering line of buoys, nets,
life rings, buckets and other castoffs stretched for hundreds
and hundreds of miles — until the airplane had to turn back.
"It was sort of a bittersweet feeling," Veenstra said.
"Sweet in the fact that what we had postulated was proven
true. Bitter in the fact that there was actually that much debris
Tuna fishermen have long known about the convergence zone and
the debris. They know that fish like to congregate beneath anything
Off the southern tip of the Big Island of Hawaii, recreational
fishermen like Guy Enriques will race miles offshore to fish beneath
It's important to get close to the trash, but not too close,
Enriques explained, or the nets and lines will wrap around a boat's
He said the best fishing was around what looked like an enormous
metal garage door floating just below the water's surface. Even
some charter boat skippers learned of that one, Enriques recalled,
and took fishermen there day after day, until it vanished.
But it wasn't a garage door. He and other fishermen were looking
at the top of an 8-by-40-foot cargo container that fell off a
ship. Such containers can float for as long as nine months. Until
they sink, they are the bane of sailors in fiberglass boats who
watch for them like icebergs on the high seas.
Charles Moore, a member of the Hancock Oil family, was on his
way home from the Los Angeles-to-Hawaii Transpacific Yacht Race
in 1997 when he took a shortcut through the Eastern Garbage Patch.
It's a place that sailors usually avoid because it lacks wind.
As he motored through on his 50-foot catamaran, Moore was startled
by what he saw thousands of miles from land. "Every time
I came on deck, there was trash floating by," he said. "How
could we have fouled such a huge area? How could this go on for
The experience changed Moore's life, turning him from an adventurer
into a self-taught scientist and environmental activist.
Two years later, he returned to the garbage patch with a volunteer
crew to survey its contents. He knew he would collect plenty of
plastic bags, bottle caps, nets and floats.
He didn't expect what turned up in a special net, one with a
tight mesh for collecting plankton, the bottom link in the oceanic
food chain. Instead of plankton, it was choked with a colorful
array of tiny plastic fragments.
"It blew my mind," Moore said. "We are filling
up the oceans with this confetti stuff, and nobody cares."
Over the last decade, Moore, 59, who lives in a waterfront home
in Long Beach, has spent his own money and some from a family
foundation on a quest to track the plume of plastic so he can
figure out how to stop it.
On a cloudless spring day, Moore waded up to his knees into the
Los Angeles River in Long Beach wearing shorts, sandals and a
white hard hat. He was tethered to a volunteer standing on the
dry riverbank, in case he slipped on the slick concrete channel.
The Los Angeles River carries enough trash each year to fill
the Rose Bowl two stories high, and despite efforts to corral
some of it near the river mouth, most slips through to the ocean.
Moore adjusted a trawlnet to collect trash flowing downriver.
At Moore's signal, a crane operator lifted the net out of the
water. Volunteers swarmed around the trawlnet, extracted the contents
and loaded them into more than a dozen jars.
The jars were filled with plastic pellets the size and shape
of pills. They come in all colors and are the raw material for
a vast array of plastic products, from trash bags to medical devices.
About 100 billion pounds of pellets are produced every year and
shipped to Los Angeles and other manufacturing centers. Huge numbers
are spilled on the ground and swept by rainfall into gutters;
down storm drains, creeks and rivers; and into the ocean.
From his river sampling, Moore estimated that 236 million pellets
washed down the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers in three days'
time. Also known as "nurdles" or mermaid tears, they
are the most widely seen plastic debris around the world. They
have washed ashore as far away as Antarctica.
The pellets, like most types of plastic, are sponges for oily
toxic chemicals that don't readily dissolve in water, such as
the pesticide DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Some
pellets have been found to contain concentrations of these pollutants
1 million times greater than the levels found in surrounding water.
As they absorb toxic chemicals, they become poison pills. Wildlife
researchers have found the pellets, which resemble fish eggs,
in the bellies of fish, sea turtles, seabirds and marine mammals.
Over time, plastic can break down into smaller and smaller pieces,
eventually turning to powder and entering the ocean in microscopic
fragments. Some plastic starts out as tiny particles, such as
the abrasives in cleaning products that are washed down the sink,
through sewage systems and out to sea.
The chemical components of plastics and common additives can
harm animals and humans. Studies have linked the hormone-mimicking
phthalates, used to soften plastic, to reduced testosterone and
fertility in laboratory animals, and to subtle changes in the
genitals of baby boys. Another additive, bisphenol A, used to
make lightweight, heat-resistant baby bottles and microwave cookware,
has been linked to prostate cancer.
Moore has tried, without success, to get manufacturers to improve
their efforts to clean up spills of pellets that wash off lots
and into storm drains. He considers beach cleanups a waste of
time, except to raise public awareness of the problem. In his
view, the cleanup has to start at the source — many miles
To make that point, Moore tromped through rail yards in Vernon
and La Mirada. On the side of a rail car a faded decal read "Operation
Clean Sweep." It had three check boxes:
"Keep Plastics Off Ground.
"Close and Lock Caps When Outlets Not in Use.
"Pick Up All Spills."
Beneath the sign was a cone-shaped pile of pellets, as white
as freshly fallen snow. Moore shuffled his sandaled feet through
another drift nearby.
"This is a plastic sand dune," he said. "It's
very slippery, very roly-poly. What makes them so good for the
factory makes them good for getting into the ocean."
Times staff writer Usha Lee McFarling contributed to this