Our Consumption Habits Cause Trash In The Ocean: Marine Debris

Credit: Condor Ferries

Marine trash or marine debris is human made solid material that is abandoned on beaches. This waste eventually goes into the ocean.

Marine debris do not include naturally produced materials such as dead seaweed, shells or carcasses.  It includes plastics, paper, wood, metal and other manufactured materials.

The largest effort of beach cleaning is conducted every September by the Ocean Conservancy. As per its latest report, nearly 20.8 million tons of trash were collected from the beaches in 116 countries in 2019.

That distillates to 32.5 million items picked up in a single day. This time, the trash list has topped by food wrappers – that includes candy wrappers and chip bags – followed by cigarette butts. Excluding Antarctica, nearly all beaches across continents were covered to retrieve trash.

What is most of the trash in the ocean?

Top 10 items that are collected during the clean-up haul are non- recyclable. Once they enter into the ocean bed, it becomes next to impossible to take them out.

These plastics degrade into smaller microplastics under the effects of sun, waves and marine life. Stronger the plastic, higher is its resiliency in the marine environment, which enables them to be carried over to extended distances.

They continue to stay at the sea surface, at times due to strong winds, get transported to offshore and eventually pile-up in a stack.

As per the Ocean Conservancy’s 2020 report, the top 10 items collected on its annual beach clean-up are as follows:

  1. Food Wrappers (candy, chips, etc.) – 4,771,602
  2. Cigarette Butts – 4,211,962
  3. Plastic Beverage Bottles – 1,885,833
  4. Plastic Bottle Caps – 1,500,523
  5. Straws, Stirrers – 942,992
  6. Plastic Cups, Plates – 754,969
  7. Plastic Grocery Bags – 740,290
  8. Plastic Take Out/Away Containers – 678,312
  9. Other Plastic Bags – 611,100
  10. Plastic Lids – 605,778

Statistics show that more than 4.7 million individual (food) wrappers were picked up. While 4.2 million (cigarette) butts were recovered.

Retrieved items that falls in the list of top ten are related to (disposable) food and beverage (packaging) however, most of those are not recyclable. Some of them are:

  • bottles and caps
  • straws and stirrers
  • cups
  • lids
  • take-away containers and
  • plastic bags

Not all bottles are recyclable. Lightweight plastic bottles create clogging in machinery hence, they are usually rejected by recycling operations.

Ocean Conservancy’s dataset records timeline on plastic pollution

Beach clean-ups started during the mid- 1980s, since then the Ocean Conservancy has maintained logs of collected items. This data reflects trends in two areas:

  1. consumer behaviour and
  2. availability of products 

After two decades of cleaning, somewhere in 2009, beverage cans and paper bags fell out of the top ten position of beach debris. However, after another decade, bottled water became widely distributed and the plastic bags in shopping and grocery stores eclipsed paper bags.

By 2017, glass bottles went out of the top ten position. And same year, plastics claimed its first place as the most retrieved beach trash material.

Quantitative data by statisticians

The 2019 clean-up haul data quantified by the statisticians stated that,

Straw: quantity of straws was so much that nearly 322 octopuses could drink eight smoothies a day for a year

Plastic cutlery: enough plastic cutlery was retrieved that could serve a three-course meal to 66,000 sharks

Fishing line: fishing line when put together was big enough for a seabird to fish from 55 miles above the ocean surface

Food wrappers: enough food wrappers to create a three-acre carpet on the sea floor

Tiny trash items during beach clean-up haul

Not only huge and manageable debris were retrieved but also tiny trash items measuring less than 2.5cm were picked up.

Plastic Pieces – 7,561,697

Foam Pieces – 2,337,622

Glass Pieces – 438,561

Weird finds during beach clean-up haul

Cleaning up 24,456 miles of coastline, from the Asian Pacific to the North Atlantic to South America, also included a collection of oddities. Some of them are as follows:

  • garden gnome retrieved from a beach in Japan
  • a barbecue grill in Hong Kong
  • a bathtub in Jamaica
  • an ironing board in Venezuela
  • a couch in western Mexico
  • a golf bag in Norway
  • a tiki torch in California

Why is beach clean-up important?

Beach clean up is super important as marine pollution especially marine plastic problems impacts the ocean habitats. Millions of plastic microparticles and related garbage is consumed by aquatic animals because of which they get injured and also die.

According to a study conducted by Orb Media, of 159 samples taken from different seas around the world, 80% had plastic fibres. An old study revealed that animals prefer plastic for its smell.

Therefore, cleaning the beaches improve the coastal and ocean ecosystem, which itself is self-sustaining. We, humans, however, disrupt it by leaving or abandoning our junk that eventually kills marine life.

As mentioned above, beach clean-up is also an opportunity to know and understand consumer behaviour with respect to the products that they are using. And know the adverse effects these products have and to encourage people to adopt more eco-friendly options. It is an exercise to understand the detrimental effect of non-biodegradable stuff that we are using and how it’s affecting the environment.

Beach clean-up is also important to encourage tourism and local economy. After all, everybody prefers to spend holidays in a clutter free environment.

Where is all the trash in the ocean coming from?

Marine debris enters into the oceans directly as well as indirectly.

Directly, when beach goers abandon – intentionally or unintentionally – their trash themselves. And people on boats or steamers or passing vessels sometimes throw their trash overboard. Afterall, no one’s looking!

Indirectly, when the debris are generated by a city hundreds of miles from ocean. Generally, it is the result of improper or careless waste disposal.  

It is indeed difficult to trace the actual source but one thing is sure, we, humans are responsible for this disruption and it is only up to us to prevent it.

Credit: Phys.org


We need more awareness programs at the ground level, may be starting from the school curriculum is a must. Also, willingness to enforce existing anti-pollution laws across beaches and ocean beds globally.

Although there is some amount of uncertainty with respect to the extent of emissions of micro-plastics from paint into the ocean and other tiny trash items. But one thing is sure, the problem is quite significant and it requires more research and regulatory along with policy-maker attention. It needs to be sorted out soon else marine life will come under endangered species and clean & hygienic beaches will be a thing of past.

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