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Cleaning Up the Language Around Ocean Pollution

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eu·phe·mism \ˈyü-fə-ˌmi-zəm\ noun: the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant.

Language matters. In fact, it's a matter of life and death sometimes.

Captain Charlie Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation recounts the meeting when acceptance of the "marine debris" euphemism took hold among agencies and organizations, on the urging and support of the plastics industry.

By not fully appreciating the power of language, ocean advocates have since adopted and propagated the term.

Now, due to our inability and slowness to adequately describe and respond to the threat, certain areas of our coasts and oceans have become overwhelmed by plastic. The stomachs of some of the most spectacular ocean animals are increasingly full of plastic. Chemicals in plastic are making their way through the food chain, back to us. Some, like BPA, move directly from plastic into our bodies.

As the problems associated with plastic pollution, ranging from dead wildlife, despoiled beaches and human health concerns, continue to expand it makes good sense to get a grip on the language we use to describe both causes and solutions.

The most well-known plasticized area on Earth is called the North Pacific Garbage Patch, a continent-size region of the North Pacific Gyre (massive ocean-size currents) far away from most human activities. To call the area merely a "patch" is yet another misuse of language, in plastic's favor! Oceanographers now report similar mega-eddies of swirling plastic in each of the ocean's five major gyres. This past year a half dozen expeditions have gathered valuable data on these slowly thickening, enormous "plastic soup bowls". Countless coastal cleanup efforts have collected and cataloged thousands of tons of plastic washing up on our shores. Countless news, magazine and TV reports have described the mess.

Here's what we know: what's in our ocean, on our beaches and in our trash cans is almost entirely made of plastic. Plastic ropes and nets, plastic army men, plastic lighters, plastic lids and caps, plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic cigarette filters, plastic syringes, broken plastic toys, endless plastic packaging and billions upon billions of unidentifiable plastic bits smaller than your fingernail. Samples of just about everything ever made of plastic can now be found in the ocean.

Yet, one term we often hear used for all this ocean plastic is, somehow, "marine debris".

Geologists refer to "debris flows" made of moving wet soil and rock. Ecologists study "forest debris," naturally occurring accumulation of wood, leaves, sticks, insects and seeds. According to recycling centers, "yard debris" includes "leaves, weeds, pruning, grass clippings, brush and woody material". Yard debris does not include "food wastes, household or hazardous wastes, animal waste, plastic or plastic bags..." Debris in nature "just happens," it's not the result of human activity and, as such, is a value neutral word.

So, one would expect "marine debris" to encompass natural, biodegradable material such as driftwood, kelp, seagrass, leaves and coconuts. Right? Wrong.

In fact, NOAA defines marine debris as, "any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or the Great Lakes." As stated earlier, the vast majority of that human-made solid material in the marine environment is plastic.

Some organizations and researchers continue to favor the term "marine debris," as do the American Chemistry Council and plastic industry lobbyists. From a scientific point of view, the term is inadequately generic and vague in reference to a very specific, egregious environmental reality.

How did we end up with that definition? How did a common word, debris, most often associated with biodegradable and compostable material become so closely associated with plastic pollution in the ocean? Could it have been chosen to soften the blame on plastic production? Was an innocuous sounding term chosen instead of an accurate one? What's a better, more accurate term that we could use instead?

The Plastic Pollution Coalition suggests simply calling the stuff what it is, "plastic pollution". Since as much as ninety percent of the items removed by volunteers from our beaches and nearly all material found in the gyres is human-made plastic, this is a clean, clear and useful improvement to our vernacular.

Some people prefer to use the phrase "plastic pollution and other solid waste" to reflect and include the small amounts of non-plastic, human-made contributions such as glass, wood, metal and paper. The phrase "plastic pollution and ocean refuse" also gets at the core of the problem: all types of trash pollute our ocean.

But there's no doubt that the phrase "marine debris" is both intentionally and unintentionally misleading.

My recommendation is to jettison the term "marine debris" unless you're referring to natural, biodegradable materials that have been part of the ocean environment for hundreds of millions of years (logs, sticks, kelp, leaves, coconuts). Instead, choose the term that does the best, most accurate job of describing the situation at hand. If plastic is your concern, call it "plastic pollution". If it's a combination of trash items, add "and ocean refuse". If your concern is a derelict, sinking vessel, call it a "derelict, sinking vessel". If coconut husks and driftwood are wreaking havoc on your beach or waterway, call it "marine debris".

Language matters. Don't allow the plastics industry's chosen language to cover up this growing insult to our planet.

Call plastic pollution, plastic pollution.

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