Consider these lofty goals – promote healthy and diverse ocean ecosystems, restore sustainable American fisheries and protect wildlife from human impact. In 1972, Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group took on such a challenge. These champions help formulate ocean policy on both the federal and state government levels.
Naturally, litter was a major concern. By 1989 an International Coastal Cleanup annual event took shape, now the world’s largest all-volunteer clean-up event for the ocean with activities held around every major body of water. Last year alone, 561,895 volunteers picked up and cataloged over 16 million pounds of trash along 13,360 miles of coastlines and waterways.
Ocean Conservancy focuses on waterways litter as it “compromises the health of humans, wildlife and the livelihoods that depend on a healthy ocean; threatens tourism and recreation, and the critical dollars they add to our local economies; complicates shipping and transportation by causing navigation hazards; and generates steep bills for retrieval and removal.”
Capturing the flow of trash at the source is especially critical before it escapes and joins the bulk of the trash lying unseen beneath the surface. Ocean Conservancy estimates 5-12 million tons of plastic enters our waterways annually from land-based sources, over 80% of the ocean plastic. During their annual event, volunteers not only rid our coastlines of trash, they tally and identify the worst litter offenders, providing a global snapshot of the marine debris littering our coasts and waterways around the world. Last year’s top ten items offenders:
1 – Cigarette butts
2 – Food wrappers
3 – Plastic beverage bottles
4 – Plastic bottle caps
5 – Straw, stirrers
6 – Other plastic bags
7 – Plastic grocery bags
8 – Glass beverage bottles
9 – Beverage cans
10 – Plastic cups and plates
While we in the United States are the top producer of waste per capita, Ocean Conservancy has found emerging countries, experiencing rapid economic growth, are the highest producers of plastic marine waste. Recent studies indicate five countries alone (China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam) produce 60 percent of the marine plastic entering our oceans. Unfortunately their waste-management infrastructures haven’t kept up with their excessive waste as their plastic and plastic-intensive goods have grown exponentially. Improved collection infrastructure will be critical or a commonly quoted projection could come true – by 2025, the ocean could contain one ton of plastic for every three tons of fish.
As global citizens, we all benefit from healthy oceans. We can contribute by containing our trash, picking up litter, not tossing cigarette butts and asking our friends to join us. Our watershed goes directly into the Missouri River, then to the Mississippi River and on to the ocean. We can form a clean-stream team, join Pick-Up Boonville and Missouri River Relief efforts, practice Refuse-Reduce-Reuse-Recycle principles, avoid single-use disposal items and plastics when possible, pick up along ocean beaches during our travels, vote in forward-thinking leaders that prioritize our environment, and donate to environmental champions including Ocean Conservancy. It’s a symbiotic relationship – when we take care of the environment, it takes care of us.