In the middle of the Pacific Ocean drifts a vast continent of plastic. Its discoverer, Charles Moore, says it is too late to clean it up, but not too late to prevent it getting worse. And the Netherlands should take the lead on this.
The American oceanographer Moore visited Wageningen UR last Friday to explain his vision. In a Forum lecture theatre that was bursting at the seams, the ocean sailor-cum-activist showed disturbing pictures of the mountains of plastic garbage that are to found nowadays in the stomachs of fish and birds. Moore discovered 'his' continent in 1997 during a sailing voyage on the Pacific Ocean. The plastic soup, as he so graphically describes it, is 34 times the size of the Netherlands. And it is not the only one. All the seas and oceans are facing increasing levels of plastic pollution. Moore has made it his life's work to solve this problem.
Moore is in the Netherlands this week to spread the word. 'The Netherlands is the only country that is drawing attention to the problem internationally. The Netherlands is a leader in this field', says Moore. And he wants to make good use of that. Researchers and businesses are working hard on an international conference on plastic pollution to be held in 2012, to put the problem and possible solutions for it firmly on the map.
If you picture solutions, however, you should not think in terms of cleaning up the plastic continent. 'That is not possible. Anyone who says that it is, is not a sailor. The sea is so large - most people have no idea how large.' Removal might be an option for large pieces of plastic, such as nets or crates, thinks Moore. But most of the plastic is too small to be cleaned up.
Waste prevention, on the other hand, is possible. And all it takes is to make different kinds of plastic. Moore doesn't see it as an option not to make plastic at all. 'This is the Plastic Era. Plastic is everywhere. But why do we make plastic that lasts far longer than we need it to?' Moore wonders. He argues for the manufacture of plastics that are reusable, non-toxic and biodegradable. He calls this the 'steady-state economy'.
And drifting plastic is only part of the problem. Most kinds of plastic are heavier than water and therefore sink to the ocean floor. 'That could well be an even bigger problem than the drifting continent', admits Moore. 'American research suggests that about half of all plastic ends up in the sea. But we just don't know.'