Cleaning Up Plastic Pollution

Walking down the street, or on a beach, or even merely from point A to point B, it’s impossible not to notice some form of trash scattered about.

I’m talking about the 8 million tons of plastic in our oceans, the 1.5 million Layson Albatrosses with plastic in their digestive system, the 127,000 nurdles found on beaches, and the 189 million plastic bottles found across highways, waterways, and parks.

Plastic pollution is suffocating not only our oceans, but our beaches, our parks, and even the remote mountains of Switzerland. As plastic production continues to expand and grow, so does our plastic problem.

Because plastics take such a long time to break down, we are constantly seeing the effects of litter from 50 years ago, 25 years ago, all the way up until this morning. And it will continue to plague our environment long after if we don’t do something about it.

There are many components to the widely sought-after solution to our plastic pollution problem, and actively cleaning up our oceans and natural environments is one of them.

The only way to combat and reverse the pollution we’ve already created is by retracing our steps and picking up after ourselves.

Types of Cleanup Activities

There has been very little action taken by governments or big business to aid in remedying the environmental toll of plastic pollution. Because of this, people from all over the globe have come together to clean up the mess that’s been created. These activists can be categorized into two different approaches: Grassroots, often non-profit operations or communities, and large scale operations.

Grassroots

Grassroots organizations are establishing themselves around the world in order to combat the plastic pollution on beaches, in waterways, and in the natural environment. These groups and individuals are combining environmental advocacy and entrepreneurialism to strengthen cleanup efforts in their own backyards through diverse and unique means.

They’re not just organizing your average beach cleanup. While beach cleanups are immensely important – Ocean Conservancy’s beach cleanups have removed more than 220 million pounds of trash since 1985 through volunteer support – these growing organizations seek to protect and preserve through innovative means, such as digital petitions and social media outreach, shifting consumer habits, educational outreach, advanced technology, and give-back incentives.

For example, Surfrider Foundation is a non-profit organization connecting activists and conservation efforts through social media presence. They advertise 160 charters and clubs and 113 active campaigns which empower local communities to take action and proactively work to keep beaches healthy.

Another organization, Debris Free Oceans, uses a more holistic approach to ocean cleanup. Through sustainability counseling, education, cleanups, policy reform, and zero-waste lifestyle events, Debris Free Oceans is looking to combat plastic pollution from all sides.

4Ocean employs cleanup crews from around the world to help clean up oceans and coastlines through their attractive 4Ocean Bracelet. They promise to remove one pound of trash for each bracelet purchased.

Others, like the Seabin Project, are creating advanced technologies to reduce ocean debris. “Seabins” are submersible water pumps that clean and displace 25 liters of water per hour, created by two Australian surfers whose aim is to solve, educate, and prevent ocean pollution.

And charities like Take 3 for the Sea are looking to raise awareness of plastic consumption patterns by advocating beachgoers to take three pieces of plastic litter from the beach when they leave. They also promote the global reduction of plastic pollution through education programs in schools and communities. 

Large Scale Operations

In addition to the many hardworking non-profit organizations implementing inspiration, education, and action around the world, there are several large scale operations in process, or being implemented, to reduce mass amounts of plastic pollution building up in the oceans, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Discovered in 1997, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the most tangible evidence of our plastic pollution problem. It consists of 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic weighing 79,000 metric tons.

There are a wide range of projects and organizations dedicated to reducing and eliminating the patch, such as The Ocean Cleanup. The Ocean Cleanup is projected to remove up to 50% of the debris floating in the patch through advanced technologies harnessing ocean currents. Once implemented, it is estimated that 50% will be cleaned up in five years.

On top of this, large scale, international organizations, such as the Ocean Conservancy, have spent years cleaning up international coastlines and protecting marine environments. Their projects range from removing trash from the ocean to restoring the Gulf of Mexico, to research and policy planning for local communities on a global scale.

Communities have been going even one step further, establishing Marine Protected Areas (MPA) and Large Scale Marine Protected Areas (LSMPA). MPAs are officially recognized delineated zones, defined by ecological boundaries, that can then be managed and protected to keep them in their natural state.

These MPAs are banding together to create seascapes or networks of marine protected areas through Conservation International. In doing this, these designated areas are not only being cleaned up, but are also being monitored on the basis that marine environments are fluid and interdependent. MPAs also provide a platform for governments and organizations to work together to keep their coastal and marine environments healthy.

Benefits of Cleaning Up

Coastal and marine cleanups are crucial for removing unnatural debris from the natural environment. Considering the fact that we produce over 300 million tons of plastic every year, it’s safe to say that the clean ups occurring around the world are helping to decrease plastic pollution.

In 2016 alone, the Ocean Conservancy reported more than 18 million pounds of trash collected in 112 countries around the world. They covered enough coastline to walk around the moon twice.

But, the reality is that if we don’t reduce our consumption of the plastic that creates these polluted environments in the first place, then it’s never going to stop. The same bottles will be there next year; the same cigarette butts; the same plastic bags.

Fortunately, coastal clean ups don’t just benefit the beaches we frequent. They also promote a broader understanding of one’s own consumption patterns and the marine community they are volunteering to protect.

Eighteen millions pounds is a lot. So these clean ups are bound to take a lot of volunteers – 500,000 actually. Over 500,000 volunteers dedicated their time and energy to the International Coastal Cleanup in 2016. More than that though, 500,000 people this year walked away with a deeper insight into marine life and their own consumption lifestyle, hopefully affecting their consumption patterns in the future.

How Can I Contribute?

There are many ways to contribute to the clean up of the world’s oceans both in your own backyard and across the globe.

1) Join a local group. Non-profits are always seeking volunteers, and volunteering your time and energy to the clean ocean commitment is beneficial not only for the environment, but for the community and for yourself.

2) Clean up on your own! Don’t feel like volunteering? Clean up in your daily life instead. Going to the beach? Take 3 pieces of trash out with you. See a plastic bag floating by on the street? Grab it and dispose of it properly. Maybe you’ll even inspire others around you to do the same.

3) No time? No worries. Volunteer or donate to larger organizations dedicated to ocean conservation efforts instead. There were several listed on this page, and even more that are worth looking into!