It is probably a common conception that marine debris consists of just a few pieces of rubbish scattered along the strand line of beaches and is of no harm to anyone. Unfortunately, according to a new report from Greenpeace, this is not the case. Marine debris has become a pervasive pollution problem affecting all of the world’s oceans. It is known to be the cause of injuries and deaths of numerous marine animals and birds, either because they become entangled in it or they mistake it for prey and eat it.

At least 267 different species are known to have suffered from entanglement or ingestion of marine debris including seabirds, turtles, seals, sea lions, whales and fish.

The scale of contamination of the marine environment by plastic debris is vast. It is found floating in all the world’s oceans, ever everywhere from polar regions to the equator.

The sources can be categorised into four major groups:
• Tourism related litter at the coast
• Sewage-related debris: these waste waters car carry with them garbage such as street litter, condoms and syringes
• Fishing related debris
• Wastes from ships and boats

What can we do about it?

Local authorities, non-gover government organisations and volunteers have all contributed towards coastal clean-up operations throughout the world. The cost of clean-ups can be high. For example, in 1998, 64 local communities in the North Sea region spent six million US dollars on beach clean up, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

The Ocean Conservancy began a beach clean-up program in Texas in 1986 which has since grown into the International Coastal Cleanup (ICC). All 55 US States are now involved with the program together with 127 countries. All consolidate in a local effort for one day each year to carry out a beach clean-up day in their area. This is undertaken by numerous volunteers. The ICC also gathers information on the types of debris collected for its global database. In 2002, almost 58% of the marine debris collected appeared to be sourced from shore-line and recreational activities, such as beach-picknicking and general littering.

Another global clean-up program is the Clean-Up the World program which is run in
conjunction with UNEP. It engages more than 40 million people from 120 different countries in clean up operations, and has a special initiative on marine debris. In the UK, a non-gover government organisation called the Marine Conservation Society has set up programmes to clean-up beaches as well as to raise awareness of the problems of marine debris.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the US government have been pioneering a method to locate marine debris at sea. Ocean convergence zones, where debris is likely to accumulate, are identified by satellite. Aircraft with special sensors are then deployed to the convergence zones to pinpoint the location of debris. This has been per perfor formed experimentally and the idea is to then send ships to areas with high quantities of debris so it could be cleared up.

We live in a world in which our resources are not always given the precious status they deserve. In industrialised society, this has contributed to the creation of a “disposable” society in which enormous quantities of waste, including much that is “avoidable waste” are generated. This situation needs urgently to be changed, so that the amount of waste produced, both domestically and by industry, is reduced and that, as much as possible, generation of persistent and hazardous wastes is eliminated.

The key to solving the marine litter problem in terms of waste management is action at source, including the widespread adoption and implementation of Zero Waste
strategies entailing waste prevention, minimisation, re-use and recycling. Until such
initiatives are widely and effectively implemented, measures available to address the
problem of marine litter and debris will inevitably remain extremely limited.

You can download the full report at Greenpeace’s web site.

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