Normandy’s windswept beaches have been quiet since the Allied invasion in 1944. Now the desolate coastline plays host to a different, more insidious attacker: plastic trash. Nestled in the coarse sand and tangled among pieces of driftwood lie the detritus of the industrialized world, an army of plastic bottles, discarded fishing lines and floats, crushed buckets, flip-flops, broken chairs, and bags.
The English Channel is not the world’s sole depositor of plastic debris. Lonely beaches all over the world — ones you’d expect to be devoid of human influence — teem with wildlife, but also with tons of trash deposited there by ocean currents. And the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, sometimes depicted as a man-made plastic island, has gained global attention, especially with outreach efforts like the sailing of the Plastiki and the JUNK raft.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that plastic is the No. 1 type of marine debris found today, with small plastic particles invisible to the naked eye making up much of it. Although the ocean’s size has made it impossible for NOAA to quantify the amount of floating trash, it has a wide range of impacts, from ingestion by fish, sea birds and marine mammals to polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB, pollution up to 1 million times the ocean’s normal level.
The problem has been in the policy spotlight for some time, from statehouses to film houses (“Bag It”), but finding a solution has proven difficult. The ocean is vast, and much of the pollution occurs in areas also rich with marine life. NOAA says that skimming or netting trash isn’t an option. But last month at the Clinton Global Initiative annual conference, a group of corporations and environmental nonprofits led by the Ocean Conservancy — dubbed the Trash Free Seas Alliance — announced its intention to work collaboratively to solve the problem of nautical plastic debris.
“We’re trashing our ocean, but it’s too valuable to trash,” said Vikki Spruill, executive director of the Ocean Conservancy, adding that as a source of protein and a regulator of global climate, allowing debris to build up in the seas is adding to a host of other problems. “We want to build relationships between different organizations. Some of the ideas we come up with may not be new, but some of these groups haven’t been talking to one another.”
The alliance’s founding members range from plastic packing manufacturers (Illinois Tool Works) and packaging users (the Coca-Cola Company) to organizations that study marine life (Marine Mammal Center) or advocate for clean coastlines (Surfrider Foundation). Other charter members include waste-to-energy firm Covanta Energy and an umbrella NGO, the Ocean Recovery Alliance; other organizations are being encouraged to join.
After conducting indexed, documented beach cleanups over the past 26 years, the Ocean Conservancy has data showing which types of trash occur most frequently, and in what amounts. The Marine Mammal Center can tell Illinois Tool which types of materials harm whales and seals. Spruill said that the alliance hopes to engage other packaging and disposable product manufacturers to come up with ways of using plastics that don’t cause as much harm and that capitalize on the value of this plastic waste.
“We need to re-purpose trash so that it doesn’t end up in the waste stream,” she said. “If we don’t do that, it’ll still end up in the ocean.”
Since 1985, Ocean Conservancy-backed volunteer beach cleaners have collected 53 million cigarette butts, 117, 356 appliances, 863,135 diapers, and enough paper plates and plastic cutlery to have a picnic for 2 million people. That’s just from one day per year in isolated spots around the globe.
In May, U.S. Senators Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, introduced legislation to reauthorize the Marine Debris Research, Prevention, and Reduction Act of 2006, a Bush-era bill which allocated $10 million to NOAA to tackle the ocean trash problem. The bill hasn’t gone anywhere since its introduction, and in Washington’s current political climate, it may stay put for a while. In the meantime, Trash Free Seas Alliance members are gearing up to craft their own solutions — based upon the trash collection data compiled by the Ocean Conservancy — over the next 12 to 18 months.