At the end of March 2011, I was fortunate to spend five days immersed in plastic pollution and marine debris at the 5th International Marine Debris Conference in Honolulu, Hawai’i. Hosted by NOAA and the United Nations Environment Program , 450 truly dedicated researchers, educators, policy folk, industry, agencies, and artists who are actively working to highlight the problem of trash in the ocean all came together for the first time in ten years. In addition to putting smiling faces to big names in the field of marine debris , I presented about Coastkeeper’s beach cleanup data , our leadership in waste reduction at cleanups, and our education efforts including Signs of the Tide and Project SWELL .
I learned a lot, and am highlighting some key points for you below:
1. There is a LOT of trash and plastic out there. As the Ocean Conservancy released their 25-year report on Coastal Cleanup Day highlighting the removal of millions of pounds of trash, other operations were reporting tons of fishing gear washing up on remote islands in the Bering Sea, and sea turtles pooping plastic bags for a month . Perhaps marine microbes burrowing into plastic are contributing to the breakdown of floating debris, but it’s still a massive problem deserving our attention and action.
2. Science is the key to marine debris solutions. While there are many excellent scientists studying marine debris and its impacts, there are many gaps in research and needs for information to better inform policy change. Even citizen science is going to be essential – and collecting data at our beach cleanups is an important piece of the puzzle for identifying problem items and reducing debris at sea.
3. The plastics industry MUST be at the table, but we can’t let them put their fingers in everything. While they may tout their commitment to reducing marine debris , representatives of single-use plastic makers will again and again state that recycling and education are the solutions to reducing marine debris. We all know that these things are a part of the effort, but source reduction and better pollution policies will get us to zero discharge a heck of a lot faster. Unfortunately, with a lot of money on the line, they can also pay to hire biased people to write the reports about marine debris and even sway the focus of government agencies and large organizations towards undertaking only activities that will not harm the bottom line of their member industries. Even if that means continued plastic pollution .
4. Even plastic pollution can be reused – as a piece of art. Dozens of marine debris artists converged at the conference to showcase their unique way of reaching the public: art. We are supporting this work locally by collecting funky trash for local artist Teresa Espaniola , who hosted a workshop at the conference. Stay tuned for more art projects in our future.
One of the outcomes of the conference is still currently under construction: a Honolulu Strategy for the reduction of marine debris. An international framework for action, this document is taking input from all conference attendees and creating guidelines for future action. With all the energy in the room when Jack Johnson closed out the conference with a live performance of his Reduce Reuse Recycle Song, there is hope that the marine debris community will continue to collaborate for solutions and strive for zero input of plastics to the ocean. There is hope.
As mentioned in yesterday’s blog post about the Ocean Conservancy’s 25-year report, the data extracted from beach cleanups can influence political, industrial and social change. Take a long walk on this beach with me…
GOVERNMENT and POLICY
Cigarette butts have long since been the number one item found by Coastkeeper on San Diego’s beaches. This is the same the world over, and has held its number one spot for the past 25 years. Because of this statistic, garnished from our data collection, this hard evidence was used to support a smoking ban on our beaches and parks which passed in 2006. Our cleanup data allows us to identify problems, track their the source, design solutions and take action by advocating for the solution.
So, what are the sources? Nine out of the top ten items of the past 25 years were disposable consumer items. These items clearly do not belong in the environment. They are threats to local and global eco-systems as they entangle wildlife, infiltrate the food chain and photodegrade into microplastics that can never be cleaned up. We try to eliminate the source of these items, but we as consumers create the demand for them. Fortunately, they are not a necessity. We can easily bring our own bag, bottle or to-go ware; it is simply that we are so comfortable with the convenience of these disposable plastics, we can’t be bothered to remember. In order to help us along, we must influence the supply to lessen the demand, thus eliminating these one-time-use, wasteful items as an option. Policy change in response to single-use plastic has been happening all over the globe to reduce the land waste and hazards to the ocean. This is a solution to eliminate the “source” of marine debris.
- As of 2008, it is illegal to give away single-use plastic bags in China—previously the TOP consumer of single-use plastic bags.
- A 2002 bag levy in Ireland led to usage drop of 90%.
- Washington, D.C., implemented a 5 cent bag fee and a saw usage drop significantly from 22.5 million bags in 2009 to 3 million bags in 2010.
- Italy became the first country to outright BAN the single-use plastic bag on January 1, 2011.
- San Francisco was the first U.S. city to ban the single-use plastic bag in 2007.
- In 1990, Virginia volunteers picked up 30 pounds of balloons; by 1991 a law was passed to prohibit mass balloon releases.
Another way to track the source even further back is by working directly with the industries that manufacture these items. Decreasing landfill space in Europe sparked a trendy tactic called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), designed to promote the integration of environmental costs associated with goods throughout their life cycles into the market price of the products. Basically necessitating that the manufacturer covers the costs of recycling or proper disposal, and makes sure it happens.
Innovative Industry changes we have seen:
- Coca Cola created a 30% plant-based soda bottle in 2009.
- Pepsi launched their 100% plant-based soda bottle in March.
- Electrolux is making vacuum cleaners out of photo-degraded plastic bits from the Eastern Pacific Gyre.
- Nike gave their 2010 World Cup soccer teams jerseys made from 100% recycled polyester. They collected 13 million plastic bottles from Japanese and Taiwanese landfills, melted to produce yarn, converted to fabric for about 8 bottles per shirt.
- Jack Johnson displaced 55,000 plastic water bottles on his 2010 US summer tour by providing water stations with filtered water.
Locally, businesses can get involved in being a part of the solution and data collection effort by sponsoring a beach cleanup through Coastkeeper. In April, Earth Month, seven of our 11 cleanups are with local organizations or corporations (Pepsi, Peregrine Semiconductors, Cox Communications, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Source 44, 31st Annual Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation, as well as partnering on an event with Whole Foods.
All marine initiatives depend on residents who understand why the ocean needs to be protected and preserved in order to build the connection and motivation for how. The Ocean Conservancy’s report is a wonderful resource to help inform communities and it is available to be shared. Coastkeeper makes cutting edge ocean and water-related information readily available both online as well as through our quarterly Signs of the Tide outreach events. Fortunately, because of our data from inland and coastal beach cleanups, coupled with the geographically broad data supplied by the International Coastal Cleanup Day, our approach to tackling marine debris has become much more sophisticated. As long as the volunteers keep coming to help collect this essential data, we can continue protecting and preserving our waterways.
In honor of world water day, I wanted to share what I learned in my recent week-long trip to Nicaragua. Nicaragua is a beautiful country, and everyone we met was friendly and helpful. My cousin and I stayed at a wonderful resort, Mango Rosa , located just outside of San Juan del Sur, on the Pacific coast approximately 2 hours from the Managua Airport.
On the drive from the airport to the resort, there was one thing I could not ignore: the miles and miles of trash lining the road . And while there were various types of trash along the road, it was clear that the vast majority of the trash was plastic—plastic bottles and Nicaragua’s ubiquitous pink plastic single-use bag.
The second thing I noticed after all the trash along the road was the countless number of people walking along the road and carrying a pink plastic single-use bag. Nearly everyone had one; no wonder they were scattered along the roadside.
Later in the week, I was fortunate enough to take a horseback riding trip to Playa Majagual and Playa Maderas, two of the local beaches. I was stunned by the number of plastic bottles along the dirt road leading from the beach, particularly since there were only a few houses dotted along route. In fact, in a 400-yard stretch, I counted 33 plastic bottles along the road.
As I glanced at these plastic bottles marring the otherwise-stunning landscape, they smiled back at me proudly with their American labels: Coca-Cola™, Powerade™, Sprite™…
When I tried to talk about the litter issue with some of the staff at the resort, they were quite defensive. They explained that most parts of Nicaragua do not have trash collection services and most people do not have cars. Mango Rosa was less than a mile from the local dump, where they collected and burned trash, but it was up to individuals to bring the trash to the dump. If people did not have a way to get the trash to the dump, it would often end up scattered along the side of a road, or across the countryside, or lining the beaches.
San Diego Coastkeeper has long-recognized the connection between inland trash and litter issues and marine debris issues. In fact, our last Signs of the Tide event, “The Great Trash Migration” explored this very issue while I was traveling in Nicaragua. If you missed the event, you can still see all the presentations here.
What I took away from my Nicaragua trip was that, whether we realize it or not, we as Americans set an example for the rest of the world. We’ve exported to Nicaragua our concept of a throw-away society, one where our lives are full of single-use plastic bags and bottles. But in Nicaragua’s case, they do not yet have the infrastructure—the trash collection and recycling facilities—to handle the massive volumes of plastic such a lifestyle generates. The result? Our American throw-away habits are shamefully on display along the roadsides and hillsides and beaches in Nicaragua.
On World Water Day I challenge each of us to set a better example for our neighbors. Bring your own reusable bag to the grocery store and say “No!” to single-use plastic bags. Carry your own refillable water bottle. Support Coastkeeper’s work to clean-up trash along our coast and in our waterways and to convince the City Council to stop using City funds to buy bottled water, except in emergencies. By becoming a member of San Diego Coastkeeper, you can support our work and get a free “I bottle my own” reusable water bottle. Only once we set a better example for our neighbors, can we help our neighbors to take the first step to solving their trash and marine debris problems.
Christina Gaffney (’17) waved her latex-gloved hand at the black water and pieces of trash flowing from a storm drain at Mission Bay Park. “See that?” she said. “I want to help stop that.”
In December, the Bishop’s 6th grade class joined forces with San Diego Coastkeeperto sweep the beach, collect garbage, and record data on their findings. Within an hour, students collected 41.75 pounds of trash: 307 cigarette butts, 261 pieces of Styrofoam, 189 plastic food wrappers, and 108 plastic bags, among other more exotic pieces of refuse like a pair of navy blue cargo pants, a toy seahorse, a dead duck, and a kite-sized piece of fiber glass, which 6th grader Nico Langlois fished out of the bay as his classmates held onto his limbs to keep him from plunging headfirst into the water.
Data recorder Katie Maysent (’17) explained, “It is important to record data on the garbage we find. If we know all the things going into the ocean, we can know what to recycle and reuse so they don’t go into the storm drains.” San Diego Coastkeeper, the region’s largest professional organization protecting San Diego’s inland and coastal waterways, uses cleanup data to communicate pollution prevention needs to decision makers.
The experience was an eye-opener for these students. Who knew that seemingly innocuous debris discarded miles inland – candy wrappers, cigarette butts, and Styrofoam bits the size of fingertips – can wreak so much damage on our coastal ecosystem? But that’s exactly what is happening, according to San Diego Coastkeeper, the county’s largest professional environmental organization protecting the region’s inland and coastal waters for the communities and wildlife that depend on them. Alicia Glassco, Marine Debris CoordinatorProgram Manager, taught the students that litter and trash blown inadvertently by the wind makes its way to the coast from storm drains, canyons, creeks, and rivers. But the scary part is what happens when it reaches the ocean.
Researchers estimate that 60-80 percent of all marine debris, and 90 percent of floating debris, is plastic. Plastic and Styrofoam are petroleum-based products that take hundreds of years to break down in the marine environment. Instead of biodegrading, plastic breaks into smaller and smaller, sometimes microscopic, pieces. Currents transport this plastic soup to a large gyre in the center of the open ocean, where it is accumulating in a so-called “Garbage Patch.” Here, plastic pieces can outnumber plankton by a ratio of 6:1. This number is likely increasing. The plastic looks like plankton, so fish consume it. Either the fish die or get consumed by something else, thereby transmitting the toxic petroleum on up the food chain.
The implications are dire for our oceans and ourselves, and sometimes it seems that the problem is too big, but as the 6th graders learned, hope lies in each of us. One of the goals of San Diego Coastkeeper is to educate the public and provide opportunities for it to help. We can become members of and donate to this and other organizations whose mission is to protect our environment. We can volunteer. We can stay informed; knowledge is power. And we can vote accordingly. We can change our own habits – lead by example, carry cloth shopping bags, pick up after ourselves, get metal water bottles instead of buying plastic, use less water, think before we fertilize, reduce, reuse, recycle, ride our bikes, remember and teach that plastic lasts forever.
Bishop’s tries to teach its students that they can make a difference in this world. Small changes help. Spread the word.
About a year ago, I started noting everyday products in my life that have some amount of plastic in them. Do you know what I realized? It’s in virtually everything. For practical purposes, I can justify the need for plastic in some products, like this keyboard I’m using to type or the brake levels on my commute bicycle, but it’s the single-use, made-for-convenience plastic items that get thrown away (or hopefully recycled) that cause a little painful feeling deep in my soul. Each day I work at allowing less of those items to creep into my daily life and try to help those around make similar choices. And in that time, I have also developed this list of the top ten reasons I hate plastics.
10. They are expensive.
They may seem cheaper at first, but over time, the cost of disposable plastic items adds up. How many Zip-Loc bags do you use in a year when reusing one food container could work? Or how many bottles of water would you buy versus one reusable stainless steel container?
9. They make nature ugly.
I will never forget swimming in the La Cove last year when my swimming partner and I couldn’t tell if the thing floating around us was a plastic bag or a jellyfish. Is trash so common now that we accept it as a part of our outdoor reality?
8. It’s everywhere.
At Christmas this year, every single item my nieces and nephew unwrapped had plastic in it. What happened to the years of wood construction sets and glass marbles? Plastics have infiltrated everything—food containers, cigarettes, clothing, housewares, beauty products, cars, etc.
7. Many are single-use.
Shoppers worldwide use 500 billion to one trillion plastic bags per year. That’s about a million bags every minute across the globe. Why?
6. They make us lazy.
That’s why. Why bring your own reusable shopping bag when the store will give you a free disposable one? Why struggle with remembering to wash and bring home your lunch container, when you can just throw away the plastic baggie?
5. They are made of oil.
Our dependence on oil is an everyday conversation, but it goes beyond the gas we put in our cars.
4. More than 60% of marine debris is plastic.
3. Birds and fish think they are food.
Have you seen Chris Jordan’s photos showcasing the massive amounts of plastics inside the stomachs of dead birds?
2. They do not biodegrade.
Plastics break down in a process called photodegrading, which means they simply break apart into ever-smaller pieces, eventually forming “plastic dust.” Through this process they release chemicals and toxins, which have many harmful effects to the ocean.
1. Because we have other choices.
Do you make them
I have a confession.
Last week, I drank bottled water from a single-use plastic bottle.
I didn’t mean to, but I was at choir practice, and I was really, really thirsty after all that singing, and we still had an hour of singing left. I forgot to bring my own reusable water bottle, and there was nary a water fountain in sight. The case of bottled water was just sitting there, pleading for parched singers to take one.
I couldn’t help myself….
The water was cool and refreshing, soothing my Beethoven-worn pipes. Yet as I walked back to take my seat in the rehearsal room, I felt a creeping sense of shame. How could I face the woman sitting next to me, after we had just had that nice conversation before rehearsal started about how I was so excited to be working for a great organization protecting our coast from pollution and marine debris?
As I sat down in my seat with a plastic single-use water bottle in my hand, I had to explain myself to the woman sitting next to me. “You know, I’m really kicking myself for not bringing a reusable water bottle to rehearsal tonight. I ran out of the office quickly and forgot to grab it. I just hate using these plastic bottles because they’re so bad for the environment and so many of them end up in a huge garbage patch in the middle of the Pacific Ocean!”
My fellow soprano listened politely and nodded and then opened her score. She was judging me; I knew it! I promised myself I’d never forget my reusable water bottle again and hoped that I didn’t make too much of a fool of myself.
At the break during this Monday’s rehearsal, I ran into the woman I had sat next to the week before. To my surprise, she said to me, “Hey, I’ve been trying to cut down on using plastic water bottles since we talked about it last week!”
I was stunned… and then elated. Here I was, crushed, thinking that I was setting such a bad example. But what I hadn’t realized is that my momentary lapse in sustainable behavior gave me an opportunity to teach a new friend about the perils of single-use plastics.
So even if we can’t be perfectly sustainable all the time, we can still teach others about why sustainable practices are important.