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What You Need to Know About Ocean Garbage


Ocean garbage, also known as ocean debris, is not just referring to the “great garbage patch” floating in the Pacific Ocean that has received so much press lately. We’re talking about every waterway on the planet, including rivers, lakes, and yes, oceans.

Ocean debris is “truly a global problem,” says Nick Mallos, conservation biologist and marine debris specialist at the Ocean Conservancy. Main culprits include cigarette butts and food and beverage containers, but the plastics are the most concerning. “Plastics have penetrated all surface waters,” says Mallos. Data suggests that 80 to 90 percent of items found in the ocean are plastic.

Understanding the Problem

Quantifying the problem is challenging. There is no real way to know how much garbage or debris is in the planets’ waters. The only real gauge the Ocean Conservancy uses is from their annual coastline pickup day. Each year, millions of pounds of garbage are picked up from U.S. coastlines—that’s 170-200 million individual items. And that’s just one day at a fraction of the world’s coasts. Based on this, it’s safe to say “the amount of trash out there is almost unfathomable,” says Mallos.

And even more challenging than understanding the problem is cleaning up the problem. Because the amount of water out there is so great, attempting to clean it all is unrealistic. Add to that the dynamic nature of water, the constant movement, winds, tides, and fragile plant and animal life, cleaning up all the water on the planet is not going to happen. Even if an efficient method were created, it’d be too costly to do especially because no one wants to take the blame and foot the bill.

One of the biggest misconceptions about the great garbage patch in the Pacific is that it’s not actually a floating island. It’s more like a vast area of water that has disproportionately more debris than other areas. If it were an island, cleanup efforts would be easier.

Because there is not much we can do about the current ocean debris, the key is to focus on prevention. Currently, researchers are working to understand just how debris enters the waterways in an effort to reduce it. Just some of the ways garbage enters the water is by the wind and through tides. Often it’s trash left behind by beach-goers or wrappers blown around by the winds. Another common point of entry, and one often not thought of, is storm drains. Every drain in every city eventually makes its way to a water source, picking up debris and trash as it moves. Other trash comes from ships, either through irresponsible waste disposal or dumping.

The Real Risks of Ocean Garbage

It’s easy to think that ocean garbage is one of those problems that doesn’t affect you, but the risks of garbage in the ocean are very real and concerning, even for those who are landlocked. Garbage and pollution in rivers and lakes is just as big a concern as in the ocean. The Great Lakes have their fair share of garbage.

Perhaps the most tangible risk of ocean debris comes from consuming fish. Plastics enter the water, and because they last a long time, they stay there but slowly break down with the pressure of the water and rubbing against rock and plant life. These same properties that make plastics useful in everyday life make it especially dangerous in the water. With so much surface area exposed and after some breakdown time, the plastics become toxic.

Eventually this piece of plastic garbage becomes many small chunks of plastic, some even microscopic. These chunks are mistaken for plankton, eggs, or other food sources and eaten by fish, birds, and other species. Too much trash in the digestive system is a death sentence for birds and marine life. Bigger species eat the smaller, compounding the toxic levels through bioaccumulation. These species then come to your dinner plate, carrying the toxins with it.

So What Can You Do about Ocean Garbage?

Dealing with ocean garbage must be a collaborative effort, says Mallos, but there are small things we can do to help. The first is to pay attention to the trash you generate and how well you secure it. Compost when possible, recycle, and always throw trash in secure receptacles. Pick up trash when you see it, whether on the beach or walking through town or organize trash clean-up events in your area.

The solution starts with us as individuals, not only for the oceans but the environment in general. Don’t use plastic bags; use reusable bags and containers. Don’t buy bottled water; use refillable drinking containers instead. Avoid purchasing items with excessive packaging, especially plastic. Finally, hold businesses accountable for using biodegradable materials, using fewer plastics, and designing packaging with minimal waste.

Finally, garbage is not an ocean problem, it’s a people problem, says Mallos. And it’s a global problem that won’t go away without advocacy, collaboration, sound business practices, and buy-in from countries around the globe, especially developing countries. But instead of getting overwhelmed with the problems of the globe, start small and start with yourself.

Source: Nick Mallos,- Ocean Conservancy, nmallos@oceanconservancy.orgw

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