09 May 2013
Weird Finds in the Ocean
Since the inception of the Cleanup, almost 10 million (9,919,343) volunteers have removed in excess of 164 million pounds (163,897,593) of debris from 330,000 miles of coastline and waterway in 153 countries and locations. Over the course of 27 years, volunteers have recorded every item of debris they found: 187,927,571 items in all.
This accounting of debris picked up in just a few hours each year has raised awareness about marine debris and informed policies to address it. Ocean Conservancy collates data collected during Cleanups for inclusion in our Ocean Trash Index—an item-by-item, location-by-location accounting of debris— published annually.
These data provide a snapshot of the debris that was removed from specific locations on a single day—but it’s clear that the magnitude of the global debris problem is far greater than indicated by these data. The global nature of collection has made the data effective for educating the public, businesses, industry and governments about the sources and composition of debris affecting ocean health. (Editor's note: in fact, Ocean Conservancy's data was used in the assessment of trash pollution in the Clean Water goal of the Ocean Health Index.)
Plague of Plastics
While the type of items has changed over the years, one thing has remained constant: plastics are pervasive. Every year, the top 10 most common items found are items we use in our everyday lives to eat, drink and subsist (Figure 1).
Cigarettes, plastic bags, bottles and an array of other single-use disposable products are found in greater abundance than non-synthetics by orders of magnitude. These items are not only unnatural to the ocean, but are dangerous to the many marine organisms that rely on a healthy marine ecosystem.
Plastics don’t decompose in the marine environment, but they do break down by mechanical means, fragmenting into smaller and smaller pieces over time, continuing to erode even at the microscopic level.
Marine Debris and Ocean Plastics
Marine debris is not an ocean problem; it’s a people problem. And there’s no disputing that the quantity of plastics and other forms of debris found from the sea surface to the seafloor is cause for concern.
Debris in the ocean is a significant threat to marine wildlife, ocean habitat, mariners and coastal communities that depend on a healthy, vibrant ocean and waterways. Aesthetically, marine debris creates visual pollution in otherwise natural landscapes. Economically, the public cost of daily beach cleaning is in the millions of dollars, while maritime industries confront significantly higher costs.
Environmentally, debris impacts a range of marine wildlife globally, and many of these animals are listed as threatened or endangered. Of all anthropogenic debris in the marine environment, plastics are the most profuse, increasing drastically over time in abundance, frequency and spatial distribution.
Accounts of physical interactions between plastic debris and fishes, turtles, seabirds, mammals and invertebrates are abundant; but equally troubling are the potential interactions we cannot immediately see. Toxicity associated with plastics is two-fold: toxic substances added to plastics during the manufacturing process can leach into surrounding environments, serving as a source for contaminants, while persistent and toxic substances already present in the water can attach to the surfaces of plastics.
We Know the Solution; We Need the Will
What Ocean Conservancy has learned over a quarter century of mobilizing the International Coastal Cleanup—from Midway Atoll to midtown Manhattan—is that the problem of marine debris and plastics is human-generated and entirely preventable.
Keeping beaches and waterways free of plastics is one important way we can reduce this stressor to ocean health. But we have also learned that the Cleanup alone will not suffice; it is a Band-Aid and not an ultimate cure to the long-term threat of marine debris. To fully confront the threat of ocean plastics as a society, we need to identify systemic changes in how we manufacture, use and dispose of plastics that will permeate the life cycle of the problem.
Trying to solve the marine debris issue through any single strategy is not likely to be successful. We must deconstruct the issue of marine debris into its primary components (e.g. ingestion of plastics, entanglement in fishing gear, etc.) and then devise and implement specific solutions to tackle each of these. At Ocean Conservancy, we are working with scientists and industry partners to do just that.
And whether it’s novel product design or proper trash disposal, individuals and businesses alike have a role to play in keeping our ocean free of plastics and healthy for generations to come.