Oceans play a vital role in the health of the earth and marine life. Covering almost 75% of the earth’s surface, oceans hold 97% of the earth’s water, produce half of the earth’s oxygen, and sequester a significant portion of carbon.[1] Unfortunately, the world’s oceans are being assaulted by marine debris. Plastic, estimated to comprise 75% of marine debris, [2] is particularly problematic because of its increased prevalence and inability to biodegrade, as well as its toxicity and hormone disrupting chemicals. Plastic becomes fragmented into microplastic particles, which are even more challenging to remove, and which act as sponges for toxics present in sea water. Plastics are a hazard to marine animals, which can ingest and become entangled in plastic materials. Marine debris is one of the most significant problems facing the ocean environment – impacting biodiversity, aesthetics, human and sea life health, and economic activities including commercial fishing and tourism.

Where does ocean debris come from? Approximately 80% of marine debris is from land-based activities during which improperly disposed materials wind up in the ocean. The other 20% originates from sea-based activities like lost fishing gear and accidental and intentional discharges from other vessels.[3] A significant portion of marine debris is comprised of single-use plastic food and beverage items like cups, bottles and caps, straws, carry out bags, food wrappers, and takeout containers. The single most prevalent item in marine debris is cigarette butts.[4] Although there are 192 countries that border oceans, it is estimated that five countries, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, are the source of more than half of these plastics.[5]

The key to addressing marine debris is prevention. All of us, consumers, government, product manufacturers, and brand owners, have the ability to make a positive impact, as do non-governmental agencies (NGOs) and the research community.

As consumers, we can avoid using single-use packaging by using refillable water bottles and coffee mugs and reusable shopping bags, and avoid purchasing products with excess packaging. What we can’t reduce, we need to be sure to properly reuse, recycle or dispose. In addition, we can participate in litter cleanup events – at beaches, waterways, and inland, where litter can be blown or carried to waterway via storm drains.

Those working in marine environments can adjust operational practices to greatly reduce or eliminate the waste discharged or lost at sea, including derelict fishing gear, and implement education, engagement, and best practices at recreational marinas.

Some state and local governments are implementing policies to address litter and marine debris such as discouraging the use of single-use plastic bags and quick service food packaging, enforcing litter and water pollution laws, ensuring public trash and recycling containers, collection vehicles and processing and disposal sites are managed properly to keep materials contained, and advancing awareness of the marine debris issue. Cleaning litter and storm drains regularly are also critical.

At the federal level, the U.S. EPA has established the Trash Free Waters Program which has resulted in research and monitoring initiatives, and prevention and control measures, including the development of a marine debris/plastic source reduction tool kit. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Marine Debris Program is also active in conducting research and undertaking activities to address the issue.

Businesses and industry groups are joining in and supporting the efforts of governmental and non-governmental organizations that unite researchers, manufacturers/brand owners, and other stakeholders to develop and implement solutions. Examples include The Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas Alliance®, and The New Plastics Economy which aims to propel innovation and redesign, reuse activities, and recycling of plastics with “radically improved economics and quality.” Fishing for Energy, a partnership with NOAA, U.S. EPA and businesses like Schnitzer Steel and Covanta Energy, has resulted in the collection of over 3 million pounds of fishing gear, and has funded research and sea life habitat restoration projects. Additionally, Marine Litter Solutions, supported by members of the plastic industry, including the American Chemistry Council, is addressing marine debris through a variety of projects across the globe, including ensuring plastic pellets are managed to avoid loss into the environment, expanding materials management infrastructure systems in countries where systems are inadequate, and educating about best practices in managing materials.

Some of the U.S. and global companies that support one or more of these initiatives include (but are not limited to) The Coca Cola Company, The Dow Chemical Company, Unilever, Amcor, Mars Incorporated, Pepsico, and Veolia.

Addressing marine debris is not just “feel good” movement, and it is not a matter of preventing damage that could potentially impact us in the future. It is estimated that by 2050, unless changes are made, there will be more plastic in the oceans, by weight, than fish.[6] Not only is marine debris already destroying habitats and killing sea animals, the human food supply is also being damaged as fish consume toxic microplastics, which we then consume. If the earth’s resources are to sustain a growing global population, we all must take immediate action.

References:

[1] www.protectplanetocean.org
[2] Secretariat of the Convention on Ecological Biodeversity, “Marine Debris: Understanding, Preventing and Mitigating the Impacts on Marine and Coastal Biodeversity,” 2016.
[3] U.S. EPA, Trash Free Waters Program
[4] The Ocean Conservancy, data from Coastal Cleanup activities.
[5] The Ocean Conservancy, “Stemming the Tide: Land-Based Strategies for a Trash-Free Ocean.”
[6] The Ellen MacArthur Foundation.