A comprehensive assessment of trash on marine wildlife
There is a vast sea of trash in our oceans. For the first time, we now have a comprehensive picture of the toll it is taking on seabirds, sea turtles and marine mammals.
A new study in Marine Policy by scientists at Ocean Conservancy and Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) mapped impacts ranging from entanglement, ingestion and chemical contamination of the 20 most commonly found ocean debris like fishing gear, balloons, plastic bottles and bags and a range of other plastic garbage found regularly in the ocean. Our research was based on elicitation, a widely-used technique to rigorously quantify the professional judgement of a community of experts, representing 19 fields of study.
- Lost or abandoned fishing gear like nets, lines, traps and buoys pose the greatest overall threat to all types of marine wildlife, primarily through entanglement.
- Consumer plastics were not far behind. Plastic bags emerged as the second most impactful item for marine wildlife. Plastic cutlery also was highly impactful. Experts highlighted the tendency of animals like sea turtles to mistake these items for food and eat them.
- Paper bags and glass bottles were assessed to be the most benign marine debris.
This study underscores the need to go beyond a product-by-product approach to reducing plastics impacts in the ocean. Consider the sheer volume of it—upwards of 8 million tons each year flow into the ocean according to a report from earlier this year.
The biggest takeaway from our report is that our strategies must encompass regional improvement in waste management systems and global changes in policy as well as local actions like changing consumer behavior and eliminating particularly problematic products. And much like the findings from our study, no single entity alone can solve our ocean plastics problem. It requires collective action from individuals and NGOs, to governments and the private sector to stem the tide of plastics from entering the ocean in the first place.
What We’re Doing
For the past three decades, Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup has documented the most persistent and proliferating forms of ocean trash on beaches and in waterways around the world. Without fail, the most common items encountered year after year are those disposable plastics we use in our everyday lives—like plastic bags, beverage bottles and food wrappers.
We are working hard to solve this problem. We are a proud and active member of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, an innovative approach to confronting the threat of derelict fishing gear on marine species.
And Ocean Conservancy is also leading a powerful alliance to unite industry, science and conservation leaders under a common goal for a healthy ocean free of trash. Members of the Trash Free Seas Alliance® are working together to confront plastic inputs from the regions that matter most while they seek to reduce and reinvent products and services that damage ocean wildlife or ecosystems.
We also work with people like you—ocean lovers who recognize the importance of keeping our oceans trash free. Your choices really do matter to the future of our ocean.