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Trash Lab: Because Rope, Wrappers, and Butts are Not Created Equal

Posted On October 3, 2012 by

Ocean Conservancy scientists George Leonard and Carmen Yeung sort through trash found on Santa Cruz beaches to better understand what’s ending up in the ocean.

Not all trash is created equal. Why does it matter? For the person who tosses their water bottle or chip wrapper into a garbage can, maybe it doesn’t. But for the integrity and health of our waterways, beaches and ocean and its animals, it indisputably does.

Over the past 27 years, through our annual International Coastal Cleanup, Ocean Conservancy has compiled the world’s largest and most comprehensive database on ocean trash. During this time, the data collection methods used by Cleanup volunteers counted one cigarette butt as equal to one plastic bottle or one fishing net. On paper this quantification may make sense, but in the marine environment these items pose very different threats to animals and ecosystems. Large scale ecological impacts of marine debris in the ocean remain unknown, but Scientists at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) are currently researching this very question to determine the magnitude of impact for different types of marine debris.

Ocean Conservancy is committed to using science to better understand the trash and debris found on beaches and in waterways around the world. Our Science Team—Denny Takahashi-Kelso, Stan Senner, George Leonard, and Carmen Yeung to name a few—conducted a pilot project in Santa Cruz, CA called “Trash Lab” that tested new protocols for weighing collected marine debris so that we can better understand historical and future Cleanup data. Our research goals were to:

  • Find average masses for specific types of marine debris collected during the Cleanup; and
  • Analyze samples of unidentifiable large plastic debris and whole microplastics to determine the types of plastic found on beaches during Cleanups.

As NCEAS Scientists generate more information about the relationship between the risks/impacts and size, shape, volume and mass of debris, it will better inform our decisions to select the most appropriate measure for each type of debris. Therefore during our pilot project, our team tested different methods to weigh marine debris.  If this pilot is feasible and provides new insight into our historical database of ocean trash, we’ll expand Trash Lab to sample and measure marine debris gathered during the Cleanup at three additional sites—West Coast, East Coast, and Gulf Coast.

Trash Lab is the first of many steps Ocean Conservancy has in place to deepen our understanding of the International Coastal Cleanup data, so that we continue to keep trash off the beach and stop it at its source while simultaneously enriching our knowledge of its threat to marine animals and ocean ecosystems.