Taking on the Threat of Ocean Garbage

Walking the sandy beaches of the Cape and Islands, kayaking the marshes and salt ponds, or scrambling around the rocky shores of Maine will almost always provide three things: a great outdoor experience, a chance to explore and learn about nature and the amazing diversity of life, and a full review of the waste, refuse, garbage, and pollutants that we cast onto our rivers, shores, and oceans.

While being blessed with the chance to take a recent early morning hike around my favorite little Massachusetts island, I calculated an assortment of the following: the smashed remnants of dozens of lobster traps, several plastic and metal buckets, beer cans, more beer cans, an unopened plastic bottle of cranberry juice (I didn’t try to drink it), a refrigerator door which was probably 30 years old, plastic food wrappers, auto oil filters, boat oil filters, one pretty large piece of fiberglass part from someone’s unfortunately lost vessel, dozens of miles of discarded fishing line, nets and other assorted fishing gear, flip-flops, sandals and shoes, 50 gallon drums, an unused emergency smoke bomb, about two dozen assorted rubber gloves (mostly lefts), about one dozen assorted rubber boots (mostly rights), a vast amount of the highly predictable but still depressing plastic bottles, a few glass bottles, an oddly-placed large chunk of asphalt, a metal chair, some random pieces of wood pallets and tree stumps, two umbrellas, pesticide spray bottles, one display of typical latex birthday party balloons, and two separate displays of very fancy Mylar celebratory balloons.

While shocking in its abundance, it was still a fairly standard composition of junk. Policy makers refer to this aspect of ocean management as “marine debris.” Honestly, I think we can just call it “ocean garbage.” Ocean garbage is a longtime and ever increasing problem. The type of materials we put into waterways and on our beaches in the modern era tend to be more toxic and long-lived than the flotsam and jetsam of past centuries. The debris floating across the Pacific from the terrible tsunami that devastated the coast of Japan last year has brought some attention to the problem, as has the media report so the massive garbage patches. Believe it or not, even the thousands of tons of stuff from a single event such as the tsunami is dwarfed by the annual build-up of daily deposits.

A challenge this broad really does require broad coordination and collaboration. The National Ocean Policy provides the forum for state officials, federal agencies, municipalities and other ocean user groups to help tackle the threat of marine debris. Regional ocean planning is certainly a great tool for coordination in New England.

Condensed from the original post on CLF.org. on 9/13/2012. Photograph by Mixy Lorenzo.