Photograph by Randy Olson, National Geographic Creative
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Children play on the shore of Manila Bay in the Philippines, which is often marred by plastic debris.

Photograph by Randy Olson, National Geographic Creative

Beach clean-up study shows global scope of plastic pollution

What items retrieved from beaches tell us about trash.

In partnership with the National Geographic Society.

Every year, tens of thousands of people worldwide volunteer for the Sisyphean chore of picking up trash from beaches. The largest effort is conducted every September by the Ocean Conservancy, which in 30 years of cleanups has collected 300 million pounds and more than 350 types of items.

New trash inevitably appears. Sometimes it takes only minutes. Nicholas Mallos, who directs the Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program, has watched that in amazement.

“I have been on beaches in Hong Kong, Saint Helena in the South Atlantic, and Indonesia where you can watch plastics and debris in the barrel of each wave crash onto the beach. Literally, the trash starts getting replaced as soon as you pick it up,” he says.

So why bother?

The short answer is, it’s better than the alternative. But more importantly, what volunteers find on those beaches illuminates in new ways the scale of marine plastic problems and the potential for solutions.

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“If the top item found is tires, we’re talking about illegal dumping,” says Kara Lavender Law, a research oceanography professor at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “If it’s bottle caps and cigarette butts, it is probably litter.”

The cost to local governments to clean beaches along 90 towns in Washington, Oregon, and California was estimated at more than $500 million in a 2012 study. But clean beaches provide economic benefit to local communities in the form of tourism dollars.

In southern California, researchers calculated that in Orange County alone that potential could translate into $46 million in just one summer. A survey of Californians taken for the same study found that 66 percent ranked the absence of debris and good water quality as “very important” to deciding whether or not to visit a beach.

Beach cleanups raise public awareness to the threat of debris more effectively than in less participatory public education programs, multiple studies show. Volunteers say the cleanups make them more mindful of how they dispose of their own disposables.

Learning from litter

They also add to the growing body of knowledge about where and how plastics travel across the seas and where they end up in the greatest abundance. Documentation of what cleanup volunteers collect and its density from location to location and what items are most and least abundant helps identify hot spots. Some of what’s learned can make a difference.

“It adds another layer of granularity to identify these leakage points around the world,” Mallos says.

On isolated Saint Helena in the South Atlantic, mid-way between Brazil and Namibia, Ocean Conservancy volunteers discovered “an exorbitant number” of plastic bottles on one beach, Mallos says. An audit of the brand names on the bottles revealed that none of them were sold on the island, but came from Asian countries thousands of miles away. Piecing the story together, the group concluded the bottle trash had not leaked from poor waste practices on the island, but rather more likely came from traveling fishing fleets working nearby waters.

The Ocean Conservancy has long audited the trash collected by item. For the first time in 2017, all of the top ten items retrieved were plastics, displacing glass bottles, aluminum cans, and rope that had been stalwarts on the list. The list includes cigarette butts (with plastic filters), food wrappers, bottles, bottle caps, and shopping bags.

“The Ocean Conservancy’s top ten list has been tremendously useful because it highlights the top trash items found globally, which for the most part do not differ from country to country,” says Law. “The fact that there is such consistency over time in different geographic regions helps identify the items most commonly lost to the environment, whether in litter form or accidental.”

Counting plastic

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Greenpeace, in partnership with a consortium of environmental groups known as Break Free From Plastic, has begun cataloguing items gathered in cleanups by brand name. The approach was tested on a beach in Manila Bay in 2017 and expanded this year to include 236 beach cleanups in 42 countries that yielded more than 187,000 pieces of plastic trash. The most recent cleanups were conducted primarily on ocean beaches, but also included riverbanks, city parks, and streets.

An audit of the items collected found that the brands most commonly retrieved belong to three multinationals: Coca Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestle.Together the three companies accounted for 14 percent of the branded items collected worldwide for the audit. Seven other multinationals were included in the audit, with smaller amounts documented. The report did not rank brands produced by local or regional companies.

Law says the results are not surprising. Coke is the world’s largest producer of bottled drinks and manufactures 128 billion bottles of soft drinks and its bottled water, Dasani, a year, according to figures supplied by Coke. Nestle, which operates in 189 countries worldwide, is the world’s largest food and beverage producer. PepsiCo, with six global divisions, has a worldwide reach.

Identifying global brands doesn’t necessarily advance the science, Law says. “Unless you are looking at a geographically limited company that you can trace, I think it’s more a matter of trying to engage the people producing the products.”

Jane Patton, who authored the Greenpeace audit report, says that’s exactly the point.

“What we are doing is moving the conversation upstream and identifying responsibility not with the person who consumes the Coke, but to have a conversation about who made that bottle in the first place and who is responsible for that bottle once it is consumed,” she says.

“We are calling for the corporations to urgently and immediately stop over-packaging their products, to redesign products so waste can be eliminated, and to take responsibility for the waste once it ends up in the environment.”

Companies take action

All three companies have pledged to reduce plastic waste by redesigning products to make them more recyclable, reducing unnecessary plastic packaging, and increasing the amount of recycled material used to manufacture their plastic products. Each company has set targets for those goals that range from 2020 to 2030.

“Nestle is committed to achieving its vision that none of its packaging, including plastics, ends up in a landfill or as litter,” says Rumjhum Gupta, a company spokeswoman. “Greenpeace’s report highlights the challenges we face as a society in tackling the issue of packaging and plastic waste. As the world’s largest food and beverage company, we recognize the issue and we are working hard to eliminate non-recyclable plastics.”

Ben Jordan, director of Coke’s environmental policy, says Coke “shares the Greenpeace goal of eliminating waste from the ocean. We believe that all of our packaging material has benefits. What we have to do is manage it properly. We need better collection, more use of recycled content, complete recycling, whether a plastic bottle or aluminum can.”

Coke partners with the Ocean Conservancy to sponsor the group’s annual beach cleanups, and Jordan says the information documented at them can be helpful in the effort to reduce marine debris.

“If it only tells you who sells what in what markets, it’s not that surprising,” he says. But if we can learn something about our waste ending up in surprising places or litter being a bigger problem in one market versus another market, then absolutely, more information is better.”

PepsiCo, in a statement, says it has invested in product redesign and is working to “bring the latest sustainable packaging advances to market. We don’t have all the answers yet, and we will continue to collaborate with a number of leaders in this area to learn and share the latest science and practical solutions.”

As marine debris worsens, the number of beach cleanups is growing as other groups organize them. They are not a solution, but there is value in doing them, Law says.

“Beach cleanups are very personal. It’s very local. It’s their beach,” she says. “There is satisfaction to say, ‘I removed ten pounds of trash from my beach.’ Even if it’s only ten pounds, that’s ten pounds that isn’t going to go into the open ocean.”