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At first blush, Charles Moore does not come across as the seafaring type. His woolly brown socks in open-toed sandals seem in perfect harmony with the abundance of broccoli, kale and lettuce growing at his home in Long Beach, California. As an organic gardener running a local urban farming project, he admits that he would be happy spending the rest of his days in the vegetable patch.
Yet for the past two decades, Moore has been associated first and foremost with another patch, which he discovered in 1997 after sailing in a race between Los Angeles and Honolulu: an area the size of France in the Pacific Ocean that is littered with plastic waste.
“It rubbed me the wrong way to have this new synthetic material that nature can’t digest floating all over the surface of the ocean,” he says of what has since been dubbed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. “So, I began to be concerned.”
Working in isolation from the world’s leading scientific and environmental organisations, he devised an expedition to return to the North Pacific Gyre — a vast and rarely visited oceanic area of high atmospheric pressure — to gauge the extent of the pollution. His findings were shocking: the amount of plastic outweighed the zooplankton (a primary link in the marine food chain) by six to one. Recalling looking out on one of the remotest places on Earth and seeing man-made waste, he says, “it was an ‘Aha!’ moment”.
Moore has been on a mission to combat plastic waste ever since. Now 70, his research has won widespread praise, even as some academics scoff at his lack of scholarly credentials. Moore founded Algalita, a marine research foundation, in 1994.
On average, he spends 100 days a year at sea captaining a 50-foot research vessel, Alguita. But on this sunlit afternoon, the 25-tonne, aluminium-hulled catamaran is moored on a ribbon of calm water barely 100 feet from his childhood home — and where he lives again now, with Samala, his wife of 44 years.
The building’s modest, terracotta façade conceals a rabbit warren of rooms and corridors that make up the original house, built in 1939, and the equally large extension that the family added some 15 years later.
Childhood memories are everywhere. On the back patio, he shows me a small raised pond. “I remember going with my dad to collect those,” he says, pointing to some round stones set in its walls. “1951 CHARLES” is stamped into the concrete.
Much of the decor appears to have changed little over the years; Moore first moved here with his family at the age of two. The dining room is small and grandmotherly, with its fitted beige carpet and wooden dresser filled with ornamental plates and goblets. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the living room has a nautical theme and large windows that look out on to the street and Alguita moored beyond.
Moore leads me to the first floor via an external staircase and into the bedroom where his mother slept until her death in late 2000. Moore has left it more or less as it was — pale yellow walls, a wooden rocking chair and aged venetian blinds. Travel receipts and other paperwork are spread out over the bed.
Until plastic waste became the dominant theme in his life, Moore was a dabbler: mathematics, physics, car mechanics, landscape gardening and, for more than 20 years starting in the 1970s, he ran a cabinet-making, carpentry and furniture repair business. At the University of San Diego he majored in chemistry but was too interested in other things: “Sacrificing all the other subjects just to know one subject, that wasn’t me,” he says. “I didn’t want to learn more and more about less and less. I wanted to know everything about everything.”
Moore’s office is a tight space with shelves housing bound volumes of National Geographic going back decades. His latest work involves studying lanternfish that have eaten plastic.
I ask him about the consequences of having so much plastic floating in the sea — and what can be done about it.
One of the problems, he says, is that the sun breaks down the plastic detritus into small fragments that are easily ingested by birds and sea life. Worse, plastic absorbs other contaminants making it even more toxic to life forms. “Every creature in the ocean is on a plastic diet,” he says matter-of-factly. “And every time they eat it, it is subtracting from their nutritional needs while carrying pollutants with it.”
On a wall downstairs, there is a framed skeleton of a bird whose fragile rib cage is stuffed with confetti-like pieces of coloured plastic that ended up killing it. It stands as a tiny but tragic monument to the damage modern life has inflicted on nature. “Oh, that’s nothing,” says Moore. “You should see all the other things I’ve seen.”
Moore and his wife are conscious of their own plastic footprint. Around the house, there are no signs of the sort of throwaway plastic that pollutes the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
“We try to eliminate plastic in our lives where possible and go with things that are reusable,” he says.
In fact, Moore has become something of an anti-plastic crusader, travelling the world to raise awareness of the problem. Sadly, he sees “no solution in the foreseeable future. Humanity has chosen a different path — a path of expanding plastic production, especially throwaway plastics”.
“Millions of people know about plastic pollution but we need to reach billions,” he says. “Why? Because everyone is a contributor to the problem.”
The same year he founded Algalita, Moore started Long Beach Organic, a non-profit organisation whose original mission was to combat ocean pollution by reducing run-off from the land, but which today operates a string of community gardens in the area. Moore himself is a licensed vendor of organic produce, selling a long list of fruit and vegetables that he grows in his vegetable patch.
As we say our goodbyes, the captain gives me a lettuce and a handful of allspice leaves. “Here,” he says. “Take these for the journey.”
Moore thinks it’s “ridiculous” to pick out a favourite thing. But he goes to his garden where, among the avocado, bay, loquat and other varietals, he spies a small, heart-shaped fruit hanging from an upper branch of his cherimoya tree.
“To access online sites, I need to be quizzed and often the question is, ‘what is your favourite . . .’ ,” he explains. “I was asked on one of these, ‘what is your favourite fruit’, and I wanted one I could remember since I love all fruits. So I chose cherimoya. I am not sorry; it is a wonderful fruit that I grow.”
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