On the third Saturday of September, the Ocean Conservancy brings together volunteer groups for the annual International Coastal Cleanup (ICC). During the 2017 cleanup, in total, approximately 800,000 volunteers in more than 100 countries collected nearly 20.5 million pounds of trash. The results of the cleanup were published in a newly released report called “Building A Clean Swell.”
During the ICC, participants contribute their data to the world’s largest database on marine debris. For each trash item collected, the volunteers log the information on a paper data card or into Ocean Conservancy’s Clean Swell app. The database provides vital information to scientists, conservation groups, governments and industry leaders to help them more closely study ocean trash.
With the data, the Ocean Conservancy hopes to educate and inform policymakers, individuals, organizations and industry leaders about which items are most often recovered from these sites.
“Hopefully, it starts triggering people to think differently about how either they are using those products in their daily lives or how they are manufacturing those products,” says Nicholas Mallos, director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program.
This year’s data provided a troubling revelation that the problem of plastics pollution has reached a climax.
“The single most unfortunate and significant takeaway from this year’s report is that for the first time in the 33-year history of the International Coastal Cleanup, all of the items in the top 10 most common items found were made of plastic,” says Mallos.
The top 10 items recovered include:
- Cigarette butts (2,412,151)
- Food wrappers (1,739,743)
- Plastic beverage bottles (1,569,135)
- Plastic bottle caps (1,091,107)
- Plastic grocery bags (757,523)
- Other plastic bags (746,211)
- Straws, stirrers (643,562)
- Plastic take out/away containers (632,874)
- Plastic lids (624,878)
- Foam take out/away containers (580,570)
In addition to the top 10 list, the report also provides the results of the Ocean Conservancy’s working group of international scientists, who are focused on studying plastic pollution in the ocean.
“We now have better estimates of the total amount of plastic entering the ocean from land (about 8 million metric tons per year) and a comprehensive assessment of the ecological impacts posed to marine animals by plastics,” Ocean Conservancy’s chief scientist Dr. George Leonard states in the report.
The working group has found that the concentration of plastic pollution in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is growing. The accumulation of marine debris is four to 16 times greater than previously thought, according to Dr. Leonard. Also of note, nearly half of all the large debris in the Gyre is lost or abandoned fishing gear. Also, microplastics, in addition to affecting oceans, also are affecting freshwater and land-based ecosystems.
The news is troubling as scientists have discovered evidence that ocean plastic is linked with disease on coral reefs; while exposure to microplastics was also shown to decrease the reproduction and population growth rate in zooplankton—animals that form the base of the ocean food chain, according to the report.
Additionally, the report shows that underwater cleanups conducted in partnership with Project AWARE collected more than 170,000 pounds of trash, which included nearly 60,000 items collected on a total of more than 320 miles of waterways.
Also of note, volunteers recovered more than 2,320,000 foam pieces, more than 1,900,000 plastic pieces and nearly 460,000 glass pieces during the ICC.