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.