I had the great fortune to head south of the equator last September for Ocean Conservancy’s 29th International Coastal Cleanup. VIDA Peru, Ocean Conservancy’s longtime Cleanup partner in Peru, invited me to participate in a weeklong series of events on ocean trash, culminating with one of their country’s signature Cleanup events at Marquez Beach. Having been my first time to Peru, and South America for that matter, I was uncertain of the beach and waterway conditions I’d find. Unfortunately, as I spoke more and more with folks from VIDA Peru in advance of the Cleanups, my expectations of clean beaches were quickly dispelled.
I asked Arturo Medina, President of VIDA Peru, what the major culprits were for ocean trash in Peru. He noted that “the waste infrastructure is drastically lacking in Peru to handle the increased waste flows. Ultimately, it all ends up in the rivers, on the beaches and flowing into the sea. Legal and illegal dumpsites located directly on the beaches are also a major issue, yielding steady streams of debris into the water.” I witnessed this first hand as one such site was visible on the beach as I sat on my surfboard offshore—dump truck after dump truck offloading rubbish onto the sand.
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.
Each year Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup draws volunteers of all ages together to remove trash from the lakes, rivers and coastlines they love. As we approach the thirtieth Anniversary of this global trash-free-seas effort, and take a retrospective look at all the Cleanup has accomplished, we know that children and students continue to play a major role in its success.
In the past two years alone, over 151,000 youth across the globe have participated in an International Coastal Cleanup event. For all volunteers, especially kids, a cleanup experience is also an educational one. Engaging the next generation on the impacts of ocean trash and, most importantly, how we all can prevent it is vital if we are to stop further flow of debris into the ocean.
8 million metric tons. That’s 17 billion pounds. That’s a big number. It’s also the amount of plastics that scientists have now estimated flow into the ocean every year from 192 countries with coastal access.
A groundbreaking study was published yesterday in the international journal Science and released at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement for Science in San Jose, California. This work is part of an ongoing international collaboration among scientists at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara to determine the scale, scope and impacts of marine debris – including plastics – on the health of the global ocean. Spearheaded by Dr. Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineer from the University of Georgia, and other experts in oceanography, waste management and materials science, this is the first study to rigorously estimate the flow of plastic materials into the global ocean.
Ocean trash. Marine debris. You’ve heard it’s a problem. An ever-increasing amount of plastic pollution is entering our ocean every day. Surprisingly, many countries around the world lack the most basic trash collection services. As incomes rise, people are able to afford more and more plastic goods. But in many countries, the ability to collect and manage waste isn’t growing at nearly the same rate. As a result more plastic is ending up on beaches, in rivers and eventually the ocean.
We’re lucky at Ocean Conservancy to have an incredible network of passionate and devoted coordinators and volunteers through our International Coastal Cleanup who work tirelessly to keep their local beaches and waterways free of harmful plastic debris. Just last week, I had the honor of interviewing our Bangladesh Country Coordinator, Muntasir Mamun, about the problems with marine debris and how the Cleanups in his country have been successfully recruiting more and more volunteers.
OC: Why are you so invested in our ocean’s health?
Muntasir: Bangladesh is the biggest delta on Earth and has one of the largest natural sandy sea beaches. Due to over population, Bangladesh is heavily threatened by the impact of trash. Moreover, thousands of rivers are going across my country and ending up being at the ocean. So, the trash being in the rivers (intentionally or unintentionally) are going to be in the ocean. Not only that, geographically Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries from the impact of climate change.
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!)