Some people would call Belize paradise. Having recently returned, I can’t say I disagree, but I also saw threats to the beauty on the surface. I spent a week in Belize researching the connection between waste management, plastic pollution and ocean health in this Central American country. As Chief Scientist, I’m working closely with our Trash Free Seas® team to build on our 30-year history of protecting our ocean from the growing threat of ocean trash.
I toured much of the country with independent consultant Ted Siegler from DSM Environmental Services, gaining a firsthand perspective on how recent investments in waste management systems in Belize are improving ocean health but learning how much farther the country needs to go. A former British colony, Belize is frequented by tourists for its beautiful beaches and tropical breezes. But Ted and I visited many sights never seen by these outsiders. The upshot? Trash is a major problem in Belize, as it is in many developing countries. And it is increasingly clear that this has big consequences for the health of the ocean.
Frequently used for take-out containers, disposable drink cups and other single-use products, EPS is a hazard to our environment—not only because of its brittle nature and propensity to fragment into small pieces—but also because it can’t be recycled, economically. This is compounded by the fact that we use so much of it! Last year, the city of New York collected about 28,500 tons of polystyrene! (That’s a lot of take-out!)
The problem of plastics in the ocean has been receiving a lot of attention recently. You might even say it’s “trending.” As it should be. Ideas about how to clean up the mess are circulating around the internet, including input from professional ocean scientists on how likely these ideas are to really be effective. But the cutting edge of scientific inquiry is assessing the extent to which plastics in the ocean – especially tiny fragments called microplastics – are impacting marine life. A recent study suggests it’s not just fish that might be eating plastic.
As the Director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas Program, I’ve had the opportunity to meet people who care about the ocean and are making a difference for the communities that depend on it. However, I’m always surprised by the number of misconceptions about ocean plastics.
With many people visiting the beach this summer, not to mention all the coverage that ocean plastics has received recently, it’s a great opportunity to clear up some of these myths:
**Update: June 10, 2014** Ocean Conservancy has been a leader in beach cleanup efforts for nearly 30 years and we are dedicated to continuing these efforts. We applaud Boyan’s creativity and ideas for an ocean cleanup and recognize that he has conducted a feasibility study to further outline the ocean cleanup model. However, the majority of concerns previously voiced by ocean scientists, as well as Ocean Conservancy, regarding the ecological, economical and logistical components of the technology still remain unanswered. Cleanups are an important part of the solution, but Ocean Conservancy believes that in order to address the growing issue of plastic pollution in our ocean, we must also focus on preventing plastic from reaching the ocean in the first place. In addition to our Last Straw Challenge, we will be rolling out a series of efforts over the coming year that we hope you’ll participate in, including the International Coastal Cleanup September 20th. Thank you for your feedback, and we hope to see you all at this year’s cleanups!
FACT: There are plastics in the ocean.
FACT: Plastics are not good for fish, turtles, birds or marine mammals.
FALSE: Ocean cleanup is the solution.
Over the past year, much attention—some positive, some negative—has been given to Boyan Slat’s revolutionary concept and prototype for “The Ocean Cleanup.” Yes, perhaps in theory—and artistically sketched blueprints—you can boom, suck and snag plastics floating at the ocean surface. But in practice, it just doesn’t make sense—ecologically, economically or logically.
200 miles, 7 beaches, 4 islands and over 7,500 pieces of trash: These numbers can be used to describe my time with Rozalia Project in the Gulf of Maine. But they don’t tell the whole story. Instead “inspiring” seems to capture most of my emotions.
Incredible scenery and wildlife served as the backdrop for the long days we spent collecting and removing trash while living aboard American Promise. Not only were we surrounded by a large pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins as we sailed south from Hurricane Island, but we also had a finback whale come within 5 meters of the boat at sunset. We saw the spouts of another whale in the moonlight reflecting off the ocean, and we observed harbor porpoises and seals, a pair of bald eagles and even an ocean sunfish, or Mola mola, in Gosport Harbor.
Our crew of 10—eight people and two dogs—were united with one goal: to remove as much trash from the shoreline and ocean surface as possible while recording data about each and every item we removed. Sailing from Bar Harbor to Kittery, Maine, we conducted seven shoreline cleanups on four different islands, and aboard American Promise, we performed three Neuston net tows and multiple dip-net sessions—all resulting in the collection of a lot of trash.
In this video that I shot during the trip, I explain what I saw on my journey, from marine debris that would dwarf a human to breaching humpbacks, fin whales, mothers and their calves. Yes, we have blemished these landscapes, but the incredible wildlife that still thrive there is all the more the reason to continue our work to keep trash out of our waterways and our ocean.