The Truth about Ocean Debris

Posted by Chandler Slavin on Oct 16, 2012 5:48:00 PM

Hiiiii! Happy Monday funday!

I am writing you from the halted Metra—crazy weather in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago has rendered all Union Pacific rail travel stopped!

Today I am going to summarize the findings presented in the cumulative study on ocean debris as per the Ocean Conservancy’s “Talking Trash: 25 Years of Action for the Ocean.”

First, some background on the report:

Over the last 25 years, volunteers from around the world have participated in versions of “International Coastal Cleanup (hereafter, ICC),” which is a grass-roots mobilization that cleans coastal beaches and inland waterways of debris and trash and characterizes said trash in publically available data-entry cards. The Ocean Conservancy explains,

“Over the past 25 years, Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup has become the world’s largest volunteer effort for ocean health. Nearly nine million volunteers from 152 countries and locations have cleaned 145 million pounds of trash from the shores of lakes, streams, rivers, and the ocean on just one day each year. They have recorded every item found, giving us a clean picture of he manufactured items impacting the health of humans, wildlife, and economies. “

These data management cards characterize the debris by trash type (material like plastic or object like fishing net), frequency, geography, etc. allowing organizations like the Ocean Conservancy and its partners to gain better insight into the true extent of ocean debris; this insight has facilitated the development of industry initiatives and policy aimed at reducing the amount of garbage in the ocean.

In total, volunteers have recorded 166,144,420 items since the first Coastal Cleanup campaign 25 years ago via the standardized data card. 43 items commonly found are tallied, as are “weird finds” like suitcases and toilets; the data are published annually in the Ocean Trash Index. To assess the long-term trends in the Cleanup the Ocean Conservancy engaged Applied Marine Science Inc. to evaluate the 25-yearl data set using sophisticated statistical methods.

Called “an invaluable snapshot of ocean trash” (Vikki Sprull, President and CEO of Ocean Conservancy), these efforts pioneered by the global grassroots community and crystallized by statistical analysis have revealed the following about the state of ocean debris:

Top ten items over 25 years (these item categories comprises 80% of ocean debris collected):

1. Cigarettes/filters—32% of recorded debris (52,907,756 item count)
2. Food wrappers/containers—9% of recorded debris (14,766,533 item count)
3. Caps/lids—8%
4. Cups/plates/forks/knives/spoons—6%
5. Beverage bottles (plastic)—6%
6. Bags (plastic)—5%
7. Beverage bottles (glass)—4%
8. Beverage cans—4%
9. Straws/stirrers—4%
10. Rope—2%

The debris is also characterized by generation per source i.e. item count per human activity. The main sources of generation include:

1. Shoreline and recreational activities (86,482,443 item count)
2. Smoking-related activities (59,411,778 item count)
3. Ocean/waterway activities (13,249,455 item count)
4. Dumping activities (4,556,591 item count)
5. Medical/personal hygiene (2,444,153 item count)

The 25-year top ten participating countries include:

1. US (3,618,462 volunteers)
*California residents comprise almost one-third of all US volunteers)
2. Philippines (2,907,608 volunteers)
3. Canada (251, 141 volunteers)
4. Japan (227,762 volunteers)
5. Venezuela (187,027 volunteers)
6. Brazil (134,701)
7. South Africa (106,253)
8. India (104, 443)
9. Puerto Rico (86,915)
10. Panama (85,600)

The 25-year top ten participating states:

1. California (1,076,344 volunteers)
2. Florida (563,380)
3. North Carolina (341, 937)
4. Texas (256,824)
5. New York (181,791)
6. South Carolina (106,987)
7. Georgia (101,827)
8. Hawaii (92,755)
9. Oregon (84,695)
10. Louisiana (75,490)

Weird finds:

• Firework debris at the Pittsburgh Three Rivers Stadium left over from fireworks at baseball and football games
• As result of hurricane in Louisiana, Cleanup volunteers tallied whole cars, refrigerators still full, dining room tables with silverware, and “just about anything you could think of” (Vincent Attard, MALTA coordinator)
• A whole toilet 100 meters from the coast on the sea bed
• A dummy “rescued” from Chicago’s south side
• Canadian Cleanup volunteers have found everything needed for a wedding, “including a wedding dress, engagement ring, tuxedo, jacket, bow tie, wedding invitations, bride and groom cake topper, and veil” (Jill Dwyer, Canada Coordinator)
• Political flags, flyers and stickers promoting political parties (Alberto Marti, Puerto Rico coordinator)

Industry initiatives resulting from data collected via International Coastal Cleanup:

• Vacuum manufacturer Electrolux produces “Vacs from the Sea,” cleaners made of plastic debris collected around the globe; the goal is to raise awareness about the scarcity of high-quality recycled plastics and plastics pollution.
• In 1990 Cleanup data analysts found that many volunteers in the Gulf of Mexico reported finding blue plastic bags of Morton’s “Ship ‘n Shore” salt, used by commercial shrimpers to keep their catch fresh. Upon learning of the improper disposal of their product packaging, Morton encouraged people to take advantage of the option to purchase salt in paper bags that degrade quickly; and, Morton included “Don’t be a Litter Boat” and “Stow it, don’t throw it,” on their product packaging.
• When Cleanup volunteers find entangled wildlife, fishing line is the number-one culprit. Municipal recycling plants are not equipped to handle fishing line. Berkley—a leading supplier of fishing tackle—allows its customers to collect used line and send to facility in bulk; sine 1990, the Berkley Conservation Institute has recycled more than 9 million miles worth of fishing line.
• When Cleanup volunteers reported encountering marine animals entangled in six-pack holders, leading manufacturer ITW Hi-Cone decided to make a safer product, which consisted of switching to a photodegradable plastic in 1988 (I don’t know the success of this material substitution).

Policy/legislation enacted as result of data collected via International Coastal Cleanup:

• In 1987 Ocean Conservancy published one of the first studies to identify plastics as a significant threat to the ocean, “Plastics in the Ocean: More than a Litter Problem.” Data referenced in the report helped illuminate the problem for the US Congress, which resulted in enforced restrictions against dumping trash items at sea by adopting Annex V of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, known as MARPOL 73/78 Annex V.
• Municipal governments in Nicaragua have increased the number of garbage receptacles on the beaches and collect them with more frequency.
• Cleanup data informed passage of the 2006 Marine Debris Research, Reduction, and Prevention Act, as well as California’s state marine debris action plan.
• Volunteers in Muskegon, Michigan, led a successful campaign (using Cleanup data) to ban smoking on beaches county-wide; in late 2008 the Chicago Park District enacted a change to its beach-use policy that prohibited smoking and discarding of smoking items on all of Chicago’s beaches.
• Laws prohibiting mass balloon releases (1991 Virginia General Assembly passed a law prohibiting mass balloon releases and other states followed).
• Laws encouraging re-usable bags (Washington, DC “Skip the Bag, Save the River” campaign, which educated residents about the new five-cent bag fee on single use shopping bags; a 2008 law in China made it illegal for stores to give away plastic bags; California enacted a 10-cent fee on disposable bags in Los Angeles county; Ireland’s 2002 shopping bag levy reduced bag use by 90%; On January 1st 2011, Italy became the first country to ban plastic single-use shopping bags nationwide).

Visit for more information.

I will let you marinate on these factoids for today; in tomorrow’s post I will provide some commentary in regards to this information.

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