Vacuum cleaners, dentures, traffic cones, Christmas trees, and plastic swords were some of the most bizarre items that volunteers picked up on beaches during last year’s International Coastal Cleanup day.
More than 1 million people participated in the global campaign across 120 countries on Sept. 15, 2018, according to a new report by the Ocean Conservancy, the nonprofit that pioneered the effort.
The volunteers picked up nearly 100 million plastic items weighing a staggering 23 million pounds throughout the single-day campaign. The massive undertaking highlights the global nature of the plastic pollution crisis and how cleanup efforts only scratch the surface of the problem.
“The issue of ocean plastic pollution continues to grow in global salience,” Nick Mallos, director of the Trash Free Seas Program at Ocean Conservancy, told Global Citizen. “Last year was the first time in history where over 1 million volunteers participated in the ICC and that momentum continues to grow.
“Not only are people more and more aware globally, but we’re seeing that translate into individual actions,” he said. “People are going to nearby beaches and waterways and engaging in these cleanups and that’s a great thing for our ocean and our planet.”
An estimated 8 to 12 million tons of plastic enter the world’s oceans annually, and more than 350 million tons of plastic are produced each year. By 2050, scientists estimate that the marine plastic will outweigh fish, and there are already more than 5.25 trillion microplastics floating in the world’s seas. This pollution is an eyesore, degrading otherwise pristine environments, but it’s also causing immense harm to marine life.
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More than 800 marine species, from coral to whales, have been harmed by plastic pollution, and food chains have been thoroughly infiltrated by it, the ICC report notes.
Beaches are often the most visible sign of the plastic pollution crisis because of their proximity to populated areas. As a result, cleanup efforts have mobilized to both fight and draw attention to the problem.
The annual ICC is the peak of this environmental activism and its ever-growing turnout coincides with actions taken by governments and major companies to limit plastic production.
In other words, as more people become passionate about tackling this problem, more world leaders are doing something about it. More than 60 countries have enacted some form of legislation to limit plastic pollution and many companies are investing in sustainable alternatives.
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“We are seeing this organic groundswell of global concern, awareness, and outrage around the issue of ocean plastic pollution,” Mallos said. “We’re seeing people in their local communities calling for things like bag bans, foam bans, and other types of legislative action and we're seeing more and people come out to waterways and cleaning up.”
During last year’s ICC, the Philippines, which recently embarked upon a major effort to overhaul its waste management system and clean up bodies of water, had the highest turnout. The United States, Hong Kong, Ecuador, Tanzania, and South Africa had the next highest turnouts. In 2018, Global Citizen helped coordinate a plastic cleanup effort in South Africa.
The most common items found during the ICC cleanups were cigarette butts, food wrappers, straws and stirrers, plastic cutlery, and plastic beverage bottles. Volunteers picked up more than 5.7 million cigarette butts and 3.7 million food wrappers.
“Cigarette butts have been the No. 1 item found since 1986,” Mallos said. “These same items that we use in our daily lives are the same ones that we’re seeing in the ocean and beaches.”
All of the 10 most common items found were of the single-use variety, meaning people buy them for convenience, use them once, and then throw them out. Mallos noted that plastic cutlery has only recently made the top 10. In response, the Ocean Conservancy launched a campaign called "Quit the Cutlery" to encourage people to avoid using plastic knives, spoons, and forks when getting take-out and eating out in general.
Even though they have a short shelf life, it will take hundreds of years for single-use items to fully break down and leave the environment. In the meantime, they’ll fragment into ever smaller microplastics that pervade the air we breathe, water we drink, and food we eat.
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“That plastic bottle may have become thousands of small pieces of plastic, and that plastic bag could be 10,000 little fibers that then get taken up by organisms across the food chain,” Mallos said.
The Ocean Conservancy classified items less than 2.5 centimeters in size as a tiny plastic and nearly half of the collected trash fell into this category. Microplastics are considerably smaller — no bigger than a grain of sand — but tiny plastics are well on their way to reaching this point.
Mallos said that the Ocean Conservancy approaches plastic pollution in a holistic fashion and campaigns to get governments and businesses to work toward solutions. He said that plastic production and waste management systems have to be standardized to ensure that all materials produced can then be collected, recycled, and reused. This is known as a circular economic model, a system that will likely take decades to achieve.
In a perfect world, beach cleanups wouldn’t have to happen. But since the oceans are already full of hazardous plastic waste, every item that’s removed from a beach is one less item that can harm marine life.
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“Over the last three decades, since the first ICC started, we’ve seen more than 15 million volunteers turn out who helped remove 315 million pounds of plastic from beaches worldwide,” Mallos said.
“We need to be targeting the root causes of plastic pollution upstream," he added. "We need to eliminate the threats of these items from ever existing marine environments in the first place.”
The next ICC will be held Sept. 21 on beaches around the world. You can find out how you can join a cleanup effort or start your own one here.