The world’s oceans cover more than 140 million square miles and have remained stable for most of human history. But in the last 30 years, man’s impact on the seas has taken a heavy toll: human garbage is polluting our oceans and killing marine life. A recent study by a United Nations panel estimates that the recent buildup of trash in the world’s oceans could cause more than $13 billion in damage to marine life and habitats. The biggest culprit is plastic, which doesn’t fully degrade and is difficult to recycle. For this month’s Environmental Outlook: garbage in the world’s oceans and what can be done about it.


  • Callum Roberts Marine scientist and conservationist, University of York (England); author of "The Ocean of Life" (2012) and "The Unnatural History of the Sea" (2007)
  • Charles Moore A sea captain, pollution expert, activist and founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation.
  • Nancy Wallace Director, Marine Debris Program, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)


  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. A U.N. panel estimates the recent buildup of garbage in the world's oceans could cost more than $13 billion in damage to marine life and habitats. The number one culprit is plastic, which entangles or is ingested by sea creatures, damaging the ecosystem. Joining me in the studio to talk about causes and possible remedies for the flow of trash into the world's oceans, Nancy Wallace of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Joining us from a studio in Tampa, Fla., Callum Roberts of the University of York. And from Long Beach, Calif., sea captain and activist, Charles Moore.

  • 11:07:45

    MS. DIANE REHMWe welcome your calls, comments, questions, 800-433-8850. Send your email to Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Nancy, Callum, Captain Moore, thank you all for joining us.

  • 11:08:04

    MS. NANCY WALLACEThank you.

  • 11:08:06

    MR. CALLUM ROBERTSThank you.

  • 11:08:06

    CAPT. CHARLES MOORENice to be with you.

  • 11:08:07

    REHMGood to have you all. Callum Roberts, I'll start with you. Your most recent book, "The Ocean of Life," is about the history of the oceans and their central role in humans' lives on planet Earth. Remind us how much of the earth is covered by the oceans and why the oceans are so important to us.

  • 11:08:38

    ROBERTSWell, the oceans cover something like 71 percent of the surface area of the planet. So this is really an ocean planet already, when you think of it that way. But if you look at it in terms of the volume of the oceans, they occupy more than 95 percent of the living space on the planet. So whatever happens in the sea is profoundly important for the processes that sustain life here.

  • 11:09:01

    REHMAnd you say that oceans have become the world's trash can. How badly are they polluted?

  • 11:09:13

    ROBERTSWell, the ocean is downstream of pretty much everything. So what you throw out into the streets washes into rivers. It then works its way downstream and into the sea. We also dispose a lot of material into the oceans directly from ships, although there are conventions supposedly preventing the worst kinds of pollutions, like plastics being discharged overboard. But it's hard to enforce those. So the oceans have accumulated a lot of material over time. In the past, much of that material was organic and it would get assimilated and broken down and would disappear eventually. But there's a lot more durable material being put into the oceans now -- particularly, as you said, plastics, which can hang around for thousands of years.

  • 11:10:02

    REHMAnd tell us what the major problem with plastics actually is.

  • 11:10:10

    ROBERTSWell, the plastics are, you know, they're not just harmless roughage for organisms. You know, if something eats a piece of plastic, then it doesn't simply pass through the gut harmlessly. The plastics tend to accumulate toxins on their surfaces. And they accumulate more and more as they break down into smaller and smaller pieces. And that's what happens when plastics are drifting around at sea, it's that they gradually fragment into smaller and smaller pieces. So chemicals that are washing around in the water, many of them from human activities -- so things like pesticides and herbicides and PCBs and mercury compounds -- these stick to those pieces of plastic.

  • 11:11:00


  • 11:11:00

    ROBERTSAnd when they're ingested by something tiny, like a zooplankton organism, then they can get inserted into the food chain and gradually passed up from one animal to the other, until they end up in big fish.

  • 11:11:14

    REHMNow, do I understand correctly that over one-third of dead animals examined have plastic in their guts?

  • 11:11:29

    ROBERTSAn enormous number do. And there are many studies of many different kinds of groups. Some are especially prone to ingesting plastic and the figures are much worse for them. So, for example, fulmars, a kind of bird related to albatross in the northern part of Europe, 19 out of 20 birds washed ashore dead on the beaches of northern Europe have plastic in their stomachs.

  • 11:11:52

    REHMHmm. Hmm. Callum Roberts, he's a marine scientist and conservationist at the University of York in England. He's author of "The Ocean of Life." And turning to you, Nancy Wallace, talk about what it is about plastic that creates such a problem for the oceans.

  • 11:12:18

    WALLACEWell, as Callum said, there are so many plastic items going into the ocean every day. And we use so many plastic items. And when we use them on land, they're good. We want them to last a long time. The unfortunate part is that when they do end up in the ocean environment -- and unfortunately they do all too commonly -- they don't break down. They can break down into smaller and smaller pieces, but they never really fully biodegrade. And the challenge, as Callum said, is that there are these chemicals in the ocean that can leach on to the plastics, and plastics are ingested by birds, by fish, by turtles, by whales.

  • 11:12:52

    WALLACEAnd so we don't know if those pieces of plastic are always killing those animals. But when we do dissections of animals, we are seeing that plastic. And even things like fishing line is plastic. And fishing line can entangle marine mammals, seals, turtles. And so anything like that can be a real problem.

  • 11:13:11

    REHMSo what is the role of NOAA in trying to prevent that kind of plastic from polluting the oceans?

  • 11:13:21

    WALLACEWell, we have the NOAA Marine Debris Program, so we are the federal lead for the United States to try to address this problem. And we do that through researching what the impacts of that problem are. We do that through removing accumulated debris, because there's a lot of debris just out in the oceans now. And so we have to try to get out what's already there. And then what we really, really try to focus on is prevention, trying to make people aware that the items they use everyday can end up in the oceans. And so we have to be responsible for those items. And so we really try to raise awareness and share with people what they can do to help solve the problem.

  • 11:13:55

    REHMAnd how much of what's discarded into the ocean is actually illegally discarded?

  • 11:14:04

    WALLACEWell, everything. Because you're not allowed to discard any plastic into the ocean. So there are things like food wastes and certain degradable paper that can be disposed of at certain parts. It's very complicated -- shipping laws, and Callum referenced some annexes that are in place. But in terms of plastic, 100 percent, you cannot dispose of any plastic into our oceans. That is illegal.

  • 11:14:28

    REHMAnd turning to you, Captain Charles Moore, you are a pollution expert and activist and founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. Tell us about the so-called great Pacific garbage patch.

  • 11:14:51

    MOOREIn 1997, I was returning from a Transpac Yacht Race, which is basically a straight-line race from Los Angeles to Honolulu. And you can't turn around and retrace your steps after you finish the race. It's a one-way race. And coming home, you have to get the northeasterly trade winds and sail north. And then you can turn right after a while and we get to the westerlies and come back to the coast of California. So I -- being a research vessel and I had entered the race not so much as a racer, but to test a new mast, put it under stress, because we had been dismasted off of American Samoa. And I brought the vessel up to about 35 degrees north latitude and decided to take an early right turn, because I had twin diesel engines and extra fuel.

  • 11:15:48

    MOOREAnd this was in 1997 and it was the largest El Nino on record at the time. And the ocean was very calm for an entire week and it allowed these bits of plastic that had been mixed into the surface waters to bob up to the surface. And so I began seeing things on a regular basis -- just surveying the horizon as a captain does -- began seeing a bit bobbing by here and a bit bobbing by there. That was in 1997. It kind of rubbed me the wrong way, being a marine mammal, so to speak, and growing up on the Pacific Coast of Southern California, I've been immersed in the Pacific Ocean. And it just bothered me that I was here, you know, one thousand miles from any land, and seeing the detritus of civilization bobbing by on a regular basis.

  • 11:16:38


  • 11:16:38

    MOORESo I resolved to come back -- scientifically determine the quantity that was out there. And two years later, I did that and published a paper in Marine Pollution Bulletin that found six times as much plastic floating out along the surface as the associated zooplankton.

  • 11:16:56

    REHMWow. So tell me -- tell me what was in that garbage patch.

  • 11:17:04

    MOOREWell, the detritus of civilization is a term that I like to use because it's what we term nonpoint source pollution. This is not being just -- you know, everyone wants to find the bad guy and go after the bad guy, but we're all bad guys here. We can't even launder our clothes, we're finding out, without discharging plastics into the environment. So the pipes and sources of debris that litter these garbage patches -- and there are five of them on the planet -- they are composed of every conceivable type of flotsam, every conceivable type of floating plastic that you can imagine -- everything from toothbrushes to tires...

  • 11:17:55


  • 11:17:56

    MOORE...everything from plastic pallets to paintbrushes, you know? I have a collection of umbrella handles. I have a collection of toothbrushes. These items come from everywhere and we're all at fault. None of us can be guiltless in this struggle to eliminate plastics. And I'd just like to say, in concluding this description of the garbage patches, that my recent voyage, just concluded two months ago, found that so much has changed since 1999.

  • 11:18:31

    REHMAll right. And I'll want to hear about that after a short break. We'll be right back.

  • 11:19:58

    REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about our pollution in the oceans. And when I say our I'm quoting Captain Charles Moore who says, it's all of us. It's every single one of us who are in some way or another polluting our oceans. Here in the studio with me is Nancy Wallace. She's director of the Marine Debris Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Joining us from Tampa, Fla. WUSF is Callum Roberts. He's a marine scientist and conservationist from University of York in England and author of "The Ocean of Life."

  • 11:20:55

    REHMAnd by phone from Long Beach, Calif., Captain Charles Moore. He is a sea captain, a pollution expert, an activist. And Ken Moore, just before the break you were talking about going back after 1999 and how much things have changed. Talk about that if you would.

  • 11:21:27

    MOOREYeah, in 1999, this so-called Eastern Garbage Patch, this area of accumulation of flotsam between Hawaii and San Francisco about midway contained maybe an item every five minutes I would see floating by. In 2007, 2008 we could stand on the bow and count about ten items per minute. It had increased to that extent. But now having just come back from a month-long voyage there returning August 15, we could no longer stand on the bow and count. It was uncountable. It was -- you know, people would say to me, well, this is a -- is it like an icebreaker? You know, you're driving through pushing stuff out of your way? And I said, oh, no, no, it's nothing like that. That was until this year.

  • 11:22:24

    MOOREThis year it was like that. There was so much stuff that we were like an icebreaker breaking through garbage. It was very similar to driving my vessel in Los Angeles harbor after a rain. There was so much trash that it was uncountable. I find this alarming that the center of the ocean, as far from land as you can get, the remotest place on the planet is so littered with the detritus of civilization that it's uncountable.

  • 11:22:54

    REHMAll right. And Callum Roberts, I would imagine you have witnessed the same kind of change.

  • 11:23:04

    ROBERTSWell, I've certainly seen trash building up on coastal areas. I haven't got the open ocean sailing experience that Captain Moore has. But what we've seen is a rise in the amount of plastic trash on beaches and all sorts of trash in fact. And one of the most insidious sorts of plastic contamination that we're seeing on beaches is that these very small particles that are produced as the plastic breaks down, getting corporate into the beach sand. And so when you're lying on a beach you're actually probably lying on top of thousands of pieces of plastic.

  • 11:23:41

    ROBERTSAnd if you, you know, pick up the sand between your fingers and let it run through them you're going to see little nurdles which are these kind of pellets that plastics are made from, manufactured from. You're going to see little fragments, colored fragments. There was a study in the United Kingdom which looked at just one small bay and counted hundreds of thousands of pieces of plastic when people started to sift the sand and look in real depth at it.

  • 11:24:06

    REHMAnd to you, Nancy Wallace, there's some impression that the ocean's garbage is coming most from Asia. Is that correct?

  • 11:24:21

    WALLACEIt's very hard to say. I mean, certainly we are all at fault here and there's no country that can say they are not contributing to the amount of plastic or trash in the ocean. While there certainly are known debris items that have come from say Japan from the Tsunami that happened, we know that those items come across the ocean and have landed on our west coast. We also know that there are a lot of areas in Asia that just have a lot of -- don't have the best waste management. So there's a lot coming into the oceans as well. But certainly it is not just one specific area. It is all of us.

  • 11:24:57

    REHMWhatever happened to recycling? How did recycling begin and why is it that only a few states have bottle deposits , Nancy?

  • 11:25:11

    WALLACEWell, that's a great question and I think, you know, you look at those states that do have bottle deposits and you see that there are just fewer plastic bottles, fewer, you know, aluminum cans on the streets because there's an incentive to bring those back. And certainly in other areas of the country where we have good recycling, there's a lot of people that want to recycle and do recycle. But our recycling rates in the United States are very low, especially if you look at places like Europe. And so we have to do a better job of both providing people access to recycling and then actually getting the word out about how important recycling is.

  • 11:25:45

    REHMHow effective and how on top of things are the recycling companies themselves? Didn't they run out of room for recycling?

  • 11:26:00

    WALLACEWell, I think it's different in different parts of the country. And the thing about recycling in the United States is that it's very city-by-city based. And so even, you know, Washington, D.C. will be very different than Maryland or Virginia. So every city has its own recycling. And so I can't speak to exactly what each municipality does. But as a country as a whole we need to do better.

  • 11:26:23

    REHMCharles Moore, talk about the floating island of debris that you actually found.

  • 11:26:32

    MOOREWell, we saw -- I saw on the horizon in the binoculars what appeared to be some sort of an industrial installation. And I thought it was a mirage. I thought I was actually seeing a mirage. It was a series of black kind of blobs just at the tops of a wave. And I kind of put it aside saying, you know, this is some sort of an illusion. But then other crew members saw it as well and we sent out an inflatable to investigate. And we were doing a survey with drones so we put a drone aloft.

  • 11:27:11

    MOOREAnd it turned out that what we had discovered was probably what Nancy was talking about that didn't make it to the shores of the west coast of America, some debris from the Japanese tsunami. It was 80 4' by 2' wide buoys, heavy black buoys that had been used in oyster aquaculture. The ropes beneath them had scallop shells woven into them as a substrate for recruiting oysters. And it had begun accumulating this detritus of civilization on it and you could walk around on it.

  • 11:27:47

    MOOREI actually walked around on it and I did a kind of travel log. I mapped it. I felt like Captain Cook, you know, having the north side naming the mountains on it, naming the coves on it, naming the peninsulas on it. And we spent several days there investigating it. But, you know, there's really no entity that's interested. Even though this weighed about 7 tons, there was really no way that we could get interest in it. We warned vessels in the vicinity that it was a hazard to navigation. Any vessel hitting it would've been severely damaged.

  • 11:28:31

    MOOREBut I've never -- I have had no call from the Coast Guard, no call from NOAA, no call from the International Maritime Organization wanting to know more about it because this is kind of a no-man's land. It's buried out in the deep ocean.

  • 11:28:43

    REHMAll right. Well, Nancy Wallace, you're hearing about it now.

  • 11:28:48

    WALLACEWell, the challenge is -- I mean, certainly we want to make sure that boaters are aware, people that are out in the ocean are aware of those hazards. Because as Captain Moore said, these large pieces of debris absolutely are a navigational hazard. One of the challenges that we have is it's very difficult to locate debris once it's been sighted because the ocean currents move so much. But then also to get boats or helicopters out there is just very challenging.

  • 11:29:11

    WALLACEWe would love to be able to intercept more pieces of debris at sea but unfortunately a lot of times we have to wait until it at least gets closer to shore to be able to address it.

  • 11:29:19

    REHMSo Callum Roberts, how is all of this debris affecting the oceans themselves?

  • 11:29:30

    MOOREWell, it's a problem for the food webs I think mainly. The production of all of these little pieces of plastic is incorporating plastic into the diet of many things. I mean, one of the most iconic species that has been affected by plastic debris is the Laysan albatross. And they live on these very remote Pacific atolls. And the chicks often just keel over on the beach and die. And you might wonder why would they be dying like this. And as the body rots away you get this little shrine of plastic pieces, often hundreds of them in the body of a chick.

  • 11:30:16

    ROBERTSThere's no space for food. The adults are not being prepared for the plastic arriving on the planet since the 1950s. They have no way of distinguishing between plastic and food.

  • 11:30:30

    REHMSo Nancy, tell us about the project that NOAA just completed in Hawaii.

  • 11:30:38

    WALLACEYeah, our NOAA team just went out and did a five-week research and removal cruise in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. So just these areas that Callum was discussing. These are remote areas. Midway, a lot of people know Midway Island from World War II. And so there's no people around there but what there is, there's all these albatrosses. And unfortunately what we're finding in every single albatross that has died, they do a necropsy on it and 100 percent of those have plastics in their stomachs.

  • 11:31:07

    WALLACEBut what our team was out doing was removing these giant derelict fishing nets that are damaging the corals and the habitat and can entangle endangered monk seals. And so they removed 57 tons of debris, 50 tons of nets and 7 tons of plastic in just that five-week period.

  • 11:31:25

    REHMSo what kind of education process do you believe is necessary to alleviate at least some of this problem, Nancy?

  • 11:31:38

    WALLACEWell, we have to work with everyone so it's working with fishermen to try to figure out why they're losing their nets, but also working with -- we really like to work with school groups because we feel like if people, young children get an ocean conservation ethic early that they won't litter. They'll learn to recycle. They'll use less single-use items. But -- so it's the children but then it's their parents as well. So it's really things we do through our community-based grants working with local individual communities on the debris issues that affect them most. We think the folks on the ground know best so we fund a lot of those projects and work with them.

  • 11:32:12

    REHMWhat about the development of a biodegradable plastic?

  • 11:32:19

    WALLACEI think a biodegradable plastic would be wonderful. We would just have to be very careful that it wouldn't give people the feeling that then they could throw it in the ocean. Because the biodegradable plastics that are on the market now do biodegrade but only in very certain conditions, like in composting. They do not degrade in the oceans.

  • 11:32:38

    REHMI see. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First to Stephanie in Bethesda, Md. You're on the air.

  • 11:32:59

    STEPHANIEThank you. My question today is for Nancy from NOAA. I hear the importance of a grassroots sort of, you know, reach children, reach communities. But I'm wondering about reaching power players and what can be done by those who have a lot to work with. Google comes to mind. I'm wondering if NOAA has contacts that could really make a mission out of doing something around an island of plastic, which is certainly not biodegradable or going anywhere, similar to how NASA has a mission around asteroid mining.

  • 11:33:33

    STEPHANIEIt's a large mission, a lot of big brains are committed to it. And it has, you know, a long-term goal but it's the idea that we'll try to tackle it with the magnitude of effort that seems necessary.

  • 11:33:45

    WALLACEI think that's an excellent idea. And certainly, you know, something like Google with Google oceans, they have been very engaged in the ocean effort. We, in the federal government, are really working towards what we call public private partnerships because there is such amazing technology development and brain power in these private industries. And we work with groups like the Ocean Conservancy that have actually brought in a lot of very big companies that you would think of, bottle -- you know, beverage companies, trash bag companies, different companies that make these products so we can try to work together to figure out how to try and solve this problem.

  • 11:34:20

    WALLACESo I agree with you completely. It can't just be, you know, the federal sector doing it or just the NGO groups. It has to be the industry as well.

  • 11:34:28

    REHMAll right. And to Erica in Ashland, Ky. You're on the air.

  • 11:34:35

    ERICAYes, ma'am. Thank you for taking my question.

  • 11:34:37


  • 11:34:39

    ERICAI want to know if the little pods I use in my washing machine and in my dishwasher are harming the environment. And I'll take my answer off the air, please.

  • 11:34:49

    REHMAll right. What do you think, Callum?

  • 11:34:53

    ROBERTSWell, as Captain Moore said, things that are coming out of the washing machines, you know, when you launder your clothes we get lots of little fibers, plastic fibers, nylon fibers which wash straight into the waste water. They pass through sewage works and they end up in the oceans. I'm not familiar exactly with the dishwasher tablets and whether there's a problem there but one thing that has been a major problem building up for some time is in personal care products.

  • 11:35:26

    ROBERTSManufacturers have been adding these micro-plastic particles to them for some time. And so facial scrubs now have all these pieces of plastic in them, which are working their way straight into the water courses and down to the oceans. And, you know, we should be using different kinds of natural exfoliates in those facial scrubs rather than stuffing them full of plastics.

  • 11:35:49

    REHMAnd to Hamish in Sycamore, Ill. Hi there, Hamish.

  • 11:35:55

    HAMISHHi. Thank you very much for taking my call.

  • 11:35:57


  • 11:35:58

    HAMISHI have worked for two plastic manufacturers -- manufacturing companies. And through my jobs I've learned that there is not a plastic that cannot be recycled. Some plastics cost more than others to be recycled and -- but we are an inventive people and we always find a cheaper, faster, better way to do things if we put our minds to it.

  • 11:36:32

    REHMBut why haven't we found that way yet, Nancy?

  • 11:36:37

    WALLACEWell, I think that's actually a question for the industry, for the plastic manufacturers. And I have asked that question specifically and said, you know, I'm a biologist. We work on ocean issues and I can tell you what the impacts of these products are. But we really need engineers to help us figure out exactly how we can start recycling more of this plastic. So I agree completely.

  • 11:37:00

    REHMNancy Wallace. She's director of the Marine Debris Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. We'll take just a short break here. We have lots of callers, lots of emails. We'll get to as many as we can. Stay with us.

  • 11:39:54

    REHMAnd welcome back. Here are a couple of emails, the first from Matt. Why aren't the cruise ships forced to recycle? Beaches I've been to on the Pacific Ocean all have swizzle sticks, plastics of all kinds. Cruise customers should be made aware of this. Captain Moore, what's your response?

  • 11:40:22

    MOOREWell, personal responsibility has been mantra of the plastics industry for a long time. But it's a fantasy. It's a throwaway society. You know, your customer wants to get rid of whatever they don't need as fast as they can in order to go on with their busy life. It's, you know, there's no easy way to get into most anything these days without tearing off a small bit of plastic.

  • 11:40:52


  • 11:40:52

    MOOREI just spent this morning cleaning up in front of my yard these little scissor, saw toothed edges from candies from Halloween that kids, to get into the candy, they have to tear off a little bit. They're not putting it in their pocket and taking it home to dispose of it in the trash can.

  • 11:41:09

    REHMQuite right.

  • 11:41:10

    MOOREThey're dropping it on the street, so we're gonna have this kind of irresponsible behavior because of the way things are manufactured. We need to redesign the products for recycling. That is the absolute, only way to do it.

  • 11:41:23

    REHMAnd here's an email from Jax, who says I recently returned from a visit to Hawaii. I learned the plastic bags are prohibited in grocery stores. Can you discuss some of the barriers to doing the same thing on the mainland? Nancy.

  • 11:41:45

    WALLACEYes. That's very recent in Hawaii, that they recently passed that bag ban. And in California, they just passed a state wide plastic bag ban. So, it is happening. In different municipalities, there's different ways of handling it. In Washington, D.C., we have a five cent fee on plastic bags.

  • 11:42:02

    REHMBut those are the big bags.

  • 11:42:04

    WALLACEThose are the big bags that you get when you check out. Exactly.

  • 11:42:08

    REHMSo, but if I'm buying a bunch of broccoli and put it in to a small bag, that plastic bag is not charged to me.

  • 11:42:17

    WALLACEThat's exactly right. So those -- there are certainly areas that we still have to work on. Because I think what's happened, especially in D.C., is that when -- five cents isn't very much, but it makes people think. And so, you see people using those reusable bags much more often now.

  • 11:42:34

    REHMAnd Callum Roberts, what about these cruise ships? What can be done there?

  • 11:42:40

    ROBERTSWell, cruise ships, really, need to have facilities for recycling at all of their stops. And the times when cruise ships just dumped all of their garbage over the side have thankfully passed, more or less. But passengers chucking things into the water from the side, that's still a problem. So...

  • 11:43:00

    REHMBut what is -- what's happening to the recyclable detritus of the cruise ships? Where is that going, Callum?

  • 11:43:10

    ROBERTSWell, it should be going into recycling facilities at ports. Unfortunately, not all ports have those recycling facilities. So, we have partial recycling going on. And given the amount of trash that they're generating, it really should be mandatory.

  • 11:43:26

    REHMNancy Wallace, what about Europeans? What are they doing that we are not? What can we do to catch up?

  • 11:43:34

    WALLACEThe European Commission has what's called good environmental status. That's what they're trying to get to. So, it's for a number of different areas and issues. Marine debris is actually one of their targets. Marine litter, they say. And so, within that, they have to actually, by 2020, reduce the amounts of marine debris on their beaches. So, they're doing that through outreach in education, they're doing that through recycling. Certain areas, like countries, like Germany, have an 80 percent recycling rate.

  • 11:44:03

    WALLACEThey are also not allowing any plastics to go into landfills. These are strong initiatives. And it's actually making an impact.

  • 11:44:11

    REHMAll right. Let's go to Beau in Indianapolis. Hi, you're on the air.

  • 11:44:20


  • 11:44:20

    REHMBeau, actually, you're in Bloomington, Illinois.

  • 11:44:24

    BEAUYeah. Actually, you guys kind of just hit on a question I was going to ask. Because I was stationed in Germany for four years when I was in the Army. And I lived off coast, and I know when they took our garbage, if you didn't have your plastics in a yellow bag, they wouldn't take your garbage. So, I'm just wondering why the United States government couldn't enforce something like that. I know a lot of stuff's privatized, but I think we could head somewhere in that direction.

  • 11:44:52

    REHMWhat about that, Nancy?

  • 11:44:54

    WALLACEWell, I think, I think there needs to be shift. And I think what we're hearing is the concerned citizens today saying that. But we need to make our politicians aware that this is important. Unfortunately, recycling is expensive. Waste management is expensive. And there's a lot of different things that we need to pay for as a society. So, if more people share their concerns and make this -- and make others aware, I think we can have a ground swell towards that.

  • 11:45:20

    REHMAnd to Paul in Indianapolis. Hi, you're on the air.

  • 11:45:26

    PAULHi, thanks for having me on.

  • 11:45:28


  • 11:45:28

    PAULI wonder if I could lay before the panel, why isn't the UN taking this, if all the countries are responsible, why isn't the UN getting involved, and I'll take my answer off the air.

  • 11:45:41

    REHMAll right. Callum.

  • 11:45:44

    ROBERTSWell, the United Nations does have some conventions that regulate things like marine pollution. But it's down to individual countries to enforce the measures within those conventions. So, the UN is not a policeman, it's not a regulator, it doesn't implement the things that it declares. Or the agreements that are made at that level. So, it's down to individual countries. They've got to take responsibility for what their ships are doing at sea. But it's not just ships. That's the problem.

  • 11:46:19

    ROBERTSAs we talked about, plastics and other sorts of garbage are getting into the oceans via rivers. And there's very little being done there to try and stop or limit those inputs. And as Nancy says, we've just got to start reusing and recycling much more, moving away from single use plastics in order to reduce the amount that's getting into the sea in the first place.

  • 11:46:43


  • 11:46:44

    WALLACEAnd I think that's all very true. I just want to mention that the United Nations Environment Program has launched the Global Partnership on Marine Litter. We are very engaged in that. And it's true, we can't enforce all of the laws of the country, but what we can do is share successes and best practices, especially with developing countries. And actually, put some funding towards projects in those areas. So, the United Nations is getting involved, although it is more recent.

  • 11:47:11

    REHMAnd let's see. Here's an email from Adrian. Would it be possible to drag nets to capture the floating plastic, process it at sea, and turn it into giant synthetic islands to be dragged to the poles and anchored to the sea bed to replace the melting ice for polar bears and penguins? What do you think about that, Captain Moore?

  • 11:47:42

    MOOREI love fantasy. It's one of the ways society progresses. But the problem is this. As Callum stated, it's twice as big as the surface area of the land. Are you going to vacuum from Patagonia to northern Canada?

  • 11:48:02


  • 11:48:02

    MOOREAnd turn around and vacuum the other way?

  • 11:48:04


  • 11:48:04

    MOOREAnd clean everything up? This stuff is pervasive throughout the marine environment. None of our trawls come up plastic free. So, but now, I want to make this point. It's gotten so bad out there that we really need to do something. It's changing the ecology of the ocean in these remote places. I'm gonna have -- you know, we protect what we love, and I love this central Pacific gyre area. It's beautiful. There's whales, there's dolphins, there's beautiful invertebrates. There's wonderful fish out there. There's purple snails that are amazing, the Janthina Snail.

  • 11:48:42

    MOOREThis plastic is robbing them of their food. It's substrate for barnacles and crabs that wouldn't be there otherwise. Even the water strider, the halibetes (sp?) is exploding out there. We've got to remove some of this stuff if we want to preserve this habitat.

  • 11:49:01


  • 11:49:01

    MOOREIt's ruining habitat. So, yes, I think because these are doldrum areas, they're calm. Skimmers can be deployed there. And we need to have a serious discussion about whether or not we can deploy resources. There needs to be a pre-cycling premium on these plastics. And the big companies need to get involved in creating technology that can preserve this habitat, this wonderful habitat out there which is being destroyed by our trash.

  • 11:49:31

    REHMCallum Roberts.

  • 11:49:32

    ROBERTSWell, it's not a crazy idea to go out there fishing for plastic. And in fact, there's a program in Europe which is exactly that. They've been partnering with the fishing industry, the European Commission partnering with the fishing industry so that any plastics that are caught in nets are actually taken back to port and put through recycling facilities. And there's also been collection of fishing nets that people use and have got lost at sea. And those are then being turned into carpeting, for example, through recycling processes.

  • 11:50:06


  • 11:50:07

    ROBERTSIt's a great way of cleaning up the sea.

  • 11:50:09


  • 11:50:09

    ROBERTSBecause fishing reaches a very large area of the sea bed, especially.

  • 11:50:13

    REHMCallum, Julie in Missouri wants you to say a little more about the cosmetic products containing micro beads and their impact.

  • 11:50:28

    ROBERTSWell, cosmetic products -- these micro-plastics which are being added to pretty much anything which is exfoliating. You know, scrubs, body rubs, creams. These little plastics are already tiny. So, they're poised, or they're perfect size for being ingested by plankton. And then, any contaminants that are on those would get transferred to the food chain and work their way up to things like tuna. So, unfortunately, when it comes to our pollution, what goes around comes around.

  • 11:51:03

    ROBERTSSo, we have always treated the sea as being a place where we can get rid of our wastes and forget about them. But now, through the agency of plastics, especially, we're seeing those pollutants being picked up, passed up the food web and ending up concentrating in the things that we love to eat.

  • 11:51:22

    REHMAll right.

  • 11:51:22

    ROBERTSThey're coming right back to us.

  • 11:51:24

    REHMTo Kevin in Dallas, Texas. Hi, you're on the air.

  • 11:51:30

    KEVINHi. Can you guys hear me all right?

  • 11:51:32


  • 11:51:33

    KEVINOkay, you guys have kind of touched on these points just a little bit, and I'll make them as brief as possible. But I don't think the future is as grim as, you know, we may think it is. I think that with the 3D printing revolution, a lot of that plastic can be recycled and respooled. And teams of people can got out, maybe rent a boat, or maybe even have an unmanned boat, go out, collect this plastic and then essentially respool it for community use for 3D printing.

  • 11:52:07

    KEVINAnd in the future, I’m pretty sure kids are going to get interested in 3D printing as it becomes more and more available. Because we're going to be able to make more 3D printers with this plastic and stuff that we collect.

  • 11:52:17

    REHMNancy. Do you want to comment?

  • 11:52:19

    WALLACESure. I mean, I'm actually very optimistic about the solutions to these problems, too. While the problems are grim, the interesting thing about this specific environmental problem is that it's a man-made problem so we can have a man-made solution. We are causing it, we can solve it. And so through our actions, through technology advancement, through education and outreach, we can actually really have an impact. There is a lot of accumulated debris out there. We need to be able to figure out how to remove it.

  • 11:52:47

    WALLACEBut what we really need to do is prevent more from getting in. So, I'm optimistic that we can actually start to address this problem.

  • 11:52:53

    REHMNancy Wallace of NOAA. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Captain Moore, do you agree that we should not be so completely pessimistic about this problem?

  • 11:53:11

    MOORENo. You know, we're driven by an economic paradigm that requires us to be wasteful. We produce waste in order to drive the economic system. But there's a wide range of possible scenarios in which attractive economic, social and environmental outcomes are possible without relying on economic growth. We need a steady state economy. We need -- all these ideas about recycling, that's really about a steady state economy, where you take back as much as you produce. And in order to do that, we need a change in the economic paradigm. And the 11th commandment can't be thou shalt grow the economy, but that's the only way a politician can get elected.

  • 11:53:56

    REHMAnd what about the Europeans and their approach, Captain Moore? Do you think they've got lots to teach us?

  • 11:54:05

    MOOREYeah. The yellow bag that the service man talked about is the bag that is for the Green Dot Program. That's not a municipal program. That's paid for by the people who make the packaging. All plastic packaging that can't be recycled in the normal way goes into that bag. It doesn't mean it's going to be recycled. It means that the manufacturer of that packaging, the person who created this difficult to recycle material has paid a premium and sends a truck around to pick that yellow bag up.

  • 11:54:39

    MOORESo, that's a special kind of plastic that's not necessarily involved in recycling, but is involved in taken back. So, we need this take back infrastructure. There has to be a take back infrastructure created by the industry that produces the stuff. There has to extended producer responsibility and that's what we're learning by the European effort.

  • 11:55:02

    REHMNancy Wallace, what is the one thing the US could be doing right now to begin to alleviate this issue?

  • 11:55:12

    WALLACEBetter waste management. I know, you just said one thing, but better recycling and using less. Captain Moore is right. We have to use less and not be a disposable society.

  • 11:55:22

    REHMAnd what about you, Callum Roberts? What would you say?

  • 11:55:26

    ROBERTSOh, I think that's absolutely true. I would echo what Nancy says, totally.

  • 11:55:32

    REHMAnd to you, Captain Moore.

  • 11:55:35

    MOOREWell, I feel that we're being driven into a barbaric situation by this push to constantly grow the economy. We've got to reign in the productive monster. You can't have unlimited growth on finite resources. It just defies logic. And that is a radical change that would deal with the climate crisis as well as the plastic pollution crisis. But we need radicals. Radicals drive change, and that's why I'm an activist.

  • 11:56:09

    REHMDo you see that happening anytime soon, Captain Moore?

  • 11:56:14

    MOOREIt's gonna be sooner rather than later if we want to avoid catastrophic change to our planet. We now have engaged destructively with planetary systems. We're engaging destructively with the oceanic gyres with our plastic waste. We're engaging destructively with the atmosphere, with our carbon dioxide. If we want to stop engaging destructively with the planet itself upon which we live, we need radical change. And I think it may happen sooner than we think.

  • 11:56:44

    REHMAll right. We'll have to leave it at that. Good wake up calls for everybody. Captain Charles Moore, Callum Roberts, Nancy Wallace. Thank you all so much.

  • 11:56:59

    MOOREYou're quite welcome.

  • 11:57:00

    REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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