Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
All of the ten most common items collected during an annual beach cleanup were partially or entirely made of plastic — the latest measure of how the man-made waste is increasingly fouling the Earth’s oceans.
In an annual report on its International Coastal Cleanup, the Ocean Conservancy reported Wednesday that glass beverage bottles are no longer among the most common items picked up by volunteers during a one-day, worldwide beach cleanup. They have been supplanted by another form of plastic — foam food containers.
Plastics make up the vast majority of the more than 20 million pieces of trash picked up from beaches and waterways, including all ten of the most common items. The top items turned in by thousands of volunteers were cigarette butts (which contain plastic fibers), followed by food wrappers, beverage bottles, bottle caps and grocery bags — all made of plastic.
New to the top ten list of most common beach debris items were the foam take-out containers. Volunteers helping the Ocean Conservancy with the cleanup on Sept. 15 collected more than 580,000 foam food containers. There were 2.4 million of the beach-waste leader — cigarette butts.
“Over the years, we have seen plastics creeping into the top-ten list, displacing items like rope, beverage and paper bags,” said Nicholas Mallos, director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program. “But this is the first year that all ten of the top-ten items collected are made of plastic. Given that plastic production is rising, this could be the start of a long and troubling trend.”
Scientists estimate that a total of about 8 million metric tons of plastic waste flows into the oceans every year. Researchers with Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated in 2015 that 90 percent of seabirds have ingested some amount of plastic.
The September cleanup by the Ocean Conservancy relied on nearly 790,000 volunteers working in more than 100 countries. They turned in everything from vampire teeth, to a megaphone to Christmas lights to a six-seat golf cart.
Activists and scientists hope to slow the production and use of plastic products to stem the flow into the seas. Several cities this year have banned items like plastic straws. A young Dutch inventor plans in August or September to deploy a system he says can clear as much as half of the plastic debris from the Pacific Garbage Patch, the giant expanse of plastic debris in the North Pacific Ocean.