“Making a Sea Change” panel discussion takeaways

June 23, 2011


Today I am going to talk about the panel discussion from the SPC meeting in March that detailed the realities of ocean debris. Titled “Making a Sea Change,” the panel consisted of a research associate from the Sea Education Association, the president of the Ocean Conservancy, and a representative from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Sooooo I went through my notes from the panel and what follows are the main points of interest. Please note, however, that as a representative of a plastics manufacturer, I was very interested in the reality of plastics in the ocean; hence, my takeaways may not be a holistic representation of the entire discussion.

In my next post I will discuss the findings presented in “Tracking Trash: 25 Years of Action for the Ocean,” which discusses the findings from 25 years of the Ocean Conservancy’s International Costal Cleanup campaign.

Notes from “Making a Sea Change” panel discussion, March 30th, San Diego, CA:

• Municipalities were allowed to dump garbage into the ocean until the early nineties (1991 US EPA ruled illegal). There was a grace period of policy implementation and execution, however, that allowed dumping to continue into the early-mid nineties. It is assumed that this lack of environmental protection policy and enforcement has resulted in what is commonly referred to as “the garbage patch,” which are areas of marine debris concentration in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. However, there is no way to “prove” that dumping trash into the ocean created today’s garbage patches because no research was conducted on trash in the ocean until AFTER municipalities stopped dumping; hence, the baseline off which progress is gauged re: marine debris, is that following extensive periods of municipal dumping.
• Contrary to popular belief, the “garbage patch” isn’t some floating island of garbage; it is more properly conceived of as a garbage soup consisting of small bits of floatable synthetics, which makes its cleanup so difficult. Even more difficult, the “garbage soup” moves around the ocean and the concentration of debris is never consistent; this results in further complications with its investigation and understanding.
• In 1991, in response to the amount of plastic pellets founds in the ocean, the plastics industry launched “Operation Clean Sweep,” which was a campaign in support of zero-pellet loss through pellet retention and management. After the launch of this industry-initiated effort, the amount of plastic pellets in the ocean decreased 90%, which is one of the most successful ocean debris clean up campaigns to date.
• As per the last 25 years of research, it was found that the amount of plastics in the ocean has not increased; this implies that while the consumption of plastics has increased, its irresponsible end of life management has not.
• 60%-80% of trash in the ocean comes from land.
o This statistic confused me because it suggests that the origin of marine debris is the irresponsible end of life management of synthetic materials, while I was under the impression that ocean dumping was the main genesis of ocean debris. When I asked the panel, they said that couldn’t say for certain where the garbage is coming from (land vs. trash dumping prior to early-mid nineties).
• In a nut shell, while the research conducted over the last 25 years does catalogue the types of marine debris found, which is crucial to understanding the problem of marine debris, it does not provide insight into the following:
o How much ocean debris exists
o Where the ocean debris comes from
o How it accumulates in patches
• Trends to consider that provide insight into genesis of ocean debris: dumping trash in the ocean; and, increased global consumption of goods and services paired with immature waste management infrastructures.
• By cataloguing the types of ocean debris found via Coastal Cleanup the last 25 years, the following was determined:
o Cigarette butts make up 33% of ocean debris, the highest concentration of debris by type. In 25 years worth of research, 52,907,756 cigarette butts were found and catalogued.
o Single-use plastic shopping bags are one of the top items found by Cleanup volunteers; in 25 years of research, 7,825,319 plastic bags were found and catalogued.
o Balloons makeup another large part of ocean debris, as in 25 years of research, 1,248,892 balloons were found and catalogued.

The information above is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding the reality of ocean debris. Next week’s post will discuss, in detail, the findings of the Ocean Conservancy’s Coastal Cleanup campaign.

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