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Andreas Merkl Headshot

Ocean Conservancy Talks Trash... and Solutions

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Plastic in our ocean -- I think we can all agree this isn't a good combination. The question is what do we do about it? This year, Ocean Conservancy and our partners collected the largest amount of trash in the 28-year history of our International Coastal Cleanup. In that time, volunteers have removed more than 175 million pounds of trash, much of it plastic, from beaches and waterways around the world. From this first-hand experience, we know the problem is getting worse, and it goes deeper than you might think. The good news is this is a problem we can fix. It will require a new approach to how we deal with plastic pollution, but it is a global issue we can and must solve. Let's consider the facts. In the next 25 years, ocean plastics could grow to 300-500 million tons, or about one pound of plastics for every two pounds of fish in the sea. So where does it all go? We can't yet say for sure, but when plastic fragments into smaller, bite-sized pieces, we do know that it is being ingested by fish, sea turtles, marine mammals, and a host of other ocean creatures. Because plastic particles adsorb pollutants in concentrations that can be 100,000 to 1 million times greater than that found in surrounding seawater, the implications to the health of marine life are profound and deeply troubling.

Time is of the essence; we don't have the luxury of only focusing on long-term fixes. We need short- and medium-term solutions that tackle the problem of plastic trash before it overwhelms critical ocean ecosystems and significantly impacts human health and safety. In Ocean Conservancy's nearly 30 years of experience on this issue, we have learned that we can't simply clean, ban or design our way out of this problem - we need to stop the flow of trash before it ever reaches the ocean.-

The first step is to change our own behavior. We can start by keeping the trash items from the Cleanup's "Top 10 Items Found" list out of the ocean. These include straws, cigarette butts, plastic bags, bottle caps, food wrappers and beverage containers. For example, millions of plastic straws pollute our ocean where endangered animals like sea turtles can choke on them. The average American eats out four times a week and almost everyone gets a straw (or two) in their drinks. To address this, Ocean Conservancy has started "The Last Straw Challenge," asking people to take a pledge to stop using plastic straws in their drinks. If 25,000 people pledge to skip the straw at restaurants each time they dine, we can keep five million plastic straws out of our ocean and landfills in just one year. That's a very good start.

There is also a huge role for industry and governments to play in tackling this issue because individual behavior change can't solve the problem on its own. The larger solution is actually technically straightforward in many places in the world -- it's bins, trucks and dumps. Basic, modern waste management infrastructure is vitally needed across much of the developing world as the foundation upon which more sophisticated approaches like resource recovery, recycling and even producer responsibility can be built. Nothing else will work without this foundation.

We know this type of approach works. Major consumer goods companies such as Coca-Cola and Nestle have met similar challenges with amazing "last-mile" distribution and logistics networks for their products -- networks that in the process also have made significant strides in reducing exposure to water-borne diseases in developing countries. Our job is to put ocean plastics into the same category.

In the long run, we need to fundamentally change our manufacturing paradigm, including how we produce, collect and reuse the range of products we depend upon every day. But in the short run, we have to stop the flow of plastics reaching the ocean. The ocean's very survival, and ours, depends upon it.

Implementing these solutions will take a combination of money, simple technologies and public/private partnerships. At Ocean Conservancy, we are working to convince governments and the private sector that together we can move mountains of trash. I hope you will make a personal commitment to make a difference and join us in this quest.

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