Ocean researcher Charles Moore's introduction to the plastics industry came in 1997, when he was sailing the Pacific Ocean and took a detour through the North Pacific subtropical gyre.
There, in the generally windless, remote waters midway between California and Hawaii, he and his crew were startled to find a brightly colored mix of plastic debris. Everywhere they looked, Moore said, they saw bottles and caps, wrappers and other fragments of plastic.
As they studied, they found jellyfish, birds and other marine creatures ingesting the plastic. Moore, head of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in Long Beach, Calif., said they found six pounds of plastic for every pound of zooplankton, a common food for larger marine animals.
As Moore and his team looked further, they learned about carcasses of birds washing up on island beaches, their stomachs full of tiny pieces of plastic they mistook for food.
Since that introduction, he's gotten to know the industry much better.
Today, Moore leads a $500,000 research project, funded by a California state agency, to help the plastics industry tackle part of the problem: reducing marine litter from resin pellets. He's been spending time in factories, trying to figure out how to keep loose pellets from migrating into storm drains, rivers, beaches and ultimately, the ocean.
It's not the only government effort targeting marine pollution and plastics.
The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy released an encyclopedic report April 20 that called for, among many things, stepped-up efforts to deal with plastic waste as part of making oceans healthier. It said plastic debris makes up 60 percent of the trash found on beaches and 90 percent of debris found floating in the ocean.
The report, the first rewrite of federal ocean policy in 35 years, received significant media attention and Congressional hearings. It pushes for more education, restarting some dormant federal commissions on marine debris, and industry support for reducing litter and raising plastic recycling rates.
Industry officials say they recognize the problems, and are about to restart a program called Operation Clean Sweep, working with Moore, that aims to help companies adopt better resin handling techniques so they don't send loose resin pellets into the environment.
The issue is complex and, at one level, reflects the popularity and durability of plastic, the industry says. But reports from scientists and ocean advocates make it clear that there could be downsides to that growth.
Moore and other ocean scientists say the pollution sometimes threatens ecosystems, such as when young birds on Pacific Islands eat too much plastic and starve because they think they're full, or animals become entangled in discarded nylon fishing nets and die.
Research points to similar problems elsewhere. Friends of the Earth Scotland reported earlier this month that birds in the North Sea had twice as much plastic in their stomachs as when they were measured in the 1980s.
It's admittedly hard to quantify the amount of debris in waters, said Seba Sheavly, director for pollution prevention and monitoring with the Ocean Conservancy, a Washington-based advocacy group.
Much of the work thus far has been in the North Pacific gyre, a vast stretch that becomes, in effect, a sewer for the Pacific because currents carry trash, some of it for years or decades, to those waters, Moore said. But high concentrations of pellets are also found in coastal waters, and researchers are starting to study other gyres, he said.
``What we're ending up with in the environment is billions of pounds of food-size [plastic] particles, which look and feel like the food these things are used to eating, and they are displacing the natural food at significant enough rates to cause mortality,'' Moore said. ``These are things we're just beginning to think about and look at.''
Another potential flag: A 2001 Japanese study found that polypropylene pellets soak up toxic chemicals like PCBs in the water, concentrating the toxins in the food chain at up to a million times that of surrounding seawater.
Some plastics industry officials worry that the debate will unfairly tarnish the industry, when it should focus instead on littering by the public. Loose resin pellets from factories probably amount to 1-2 percent of the material getting into the waterways, said Robert Krebs, spokesman for the American Plastics Council in Arlington, Va.
Krebs said industry plans to do its part to tackle resin pellet pollution, and he noted that no company wants to waste resin. But he criticized Moore for pursuing ``an agenda to point the finger at the plastics industry.''
He accused Moore of doctoring videos, mixing images of jellyfish swimming amid plastic in tanks in his lab with ocean footage for his short documentaries.
``You have to take what Charles Moore said with a block of salt,'' Krebs said.
Moore defended his work, saying it depicts what is happening in the oceans. He said he used film footage from his lab because lighting was not good enough in the ocean, and he was only trying to show how the animals would eat the plastic.
He argues that large amounts of packaging wind up as litter, and he noted, quoting California state government figures, that only about 5 percent of all plastic packaging is recycled.
APC's message is that the problem is primarily an individual responsibility.
The trade group paid for satellite transmission time for Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the legendary ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, to appear on TV news shows around the country this month to talk about how ocean litter is a personal responsibility, Krebs said. APC also made a ``minor contribution'' to Cousteau's group, the Ocean Futures Society, Krebs said.
The personal responsibility message is echoed by one member of the U.S. government's Ocean Commission, Paul Kelly: ``One of the messages ... all through the report is the need for increased stewardship on the part of individual people.''
Others say both individuals and institutions need to step up.
Anthony Andrady, a senior scientist at North Carolina's Research Triangle Institute who is active in marine pollution issues, said industry and government need to do more public education.
Andrady, a polymer scientist who edited the 2003 book, Plastics and the Environment, said plastics have value for society. But he said they should be used more responsibly, and he urged companies not to take the ``narrow view'' that once they make a plastic bottle or package, they are done with it.
``The plastics industry must take the lead on telling the consumer what are the implications of the consumer's use of plastic,'' he said.