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Suit Up: The Science Behind the International Coastal Cleanup

luca-steeb-385023-unsplash
© Luca Steeb

Last week, Ocean Conservancy’s CEO Janis Searles Jones shared her take on our new #SuitUptoCleanUp campaign, inviting everyone to throw on their “ocean best” and head out to their local International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) event to pick up trash.

I love this new campaign for a lot of reasons, but the main one is this: whether you’re buttoning up a police uniform, pulling on medical scrubs, or buckling on a construction hat, we all have our uniforms that we wear to tackle big problems. And marine debris—and plastics, in particular—is a big problem, for which we all can suit up.

According to research led by Dr. Jenna Jambeck, 8 million metric tons of plastic makes its way into our ocean every year. That’s the equivalent of a garbage truck full of plastic dumping straight into the sea every minute of every day.

It’s a shocking amount, and new research has shown that the problem is much greater than just unsightly beach litter:

  • The problem of plastic in the ocean appears to be getting worse. A recent study by Lebreton and colleagues found that the concentration of plastic pollution in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch) is growing. More striking, nearly half of the debris far out at sea is lost or abandoned fishing gear.
  • Plastic is pretty much everywhere. Plastics don’t biodegrade but rather fracture into smaller and smaller fragments called microplastics. Not only have scientists found these often invisible pieces of plastic in all parts of the ocean, from the surface waters to the deep sea and from the tropics to the poles; they have also been found in freshwater lakes and streams, in our soil on land, in bottled water, table salt and my favorite, beer.
  • Plastic pollution is combining with other planetary stressors that make our challenge of protecting the ocean that much harder and more urgent. A recent study in the prestigious journal Science by Lamb et al. found that plastics massively increase the susceptibility of coral reefs to disease. Corals are the rainforest of the ocean, home to countless marine species and critical parts of the global food chain; and they already are suffering greatly from climate change-driven bleaching.
  • We all know the adage “you are what you eat.” Sadly, plastic is finding its way into the marine food web, from the smallest of phytoplankton and zooplankton at the base of the web to the largest animals including seabirds, turtles and whales. Beyond choking and entangling sea life, chemical contaminants can be transferred from plastics to the animals that we often eat for food. Scientists don’t yet know what the consequences are for human health, but a precautionary and responsible approach is to do all we can to keep plastics out of the ocean in the first place.

I know all this sounds daunting. But that’s exactly why the ICC is so important. Over the last 30 years, 13 million volunteers around the world have participated in our annual International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) to help keep our coasts clean and free of trash. Last year alone, more than 800,000 people kept 20 million pounds of trash—most of it plastic—out of the ocean. Every person, every action, every bucket full of plastic removed from the beach makes the ocean a little bit healthier. While we need governments and businesses to step up, all of us individually can play a role in solving this problem.

This year the ICC is happening on Saturday, September 15th in thousands of locations around the world*. You don’t need a lab coat or a hazmat suit to get involved. You can join us by just suiting up in some protective gloves and closed-toe shoes and getting out to your local ICC event. Whether you’re from the coast of California or the plains of Kansas, find a clean-up location near you at www.suituptocleanup.org.

G. Leonard and friend at Panther Beach Santa Cruz 2012
© Courtesy of George Leonard

Together we can clean up our ocean. The latest science tells us we have to!

I’ll be on the beach. Will you?

*If you’re in an area due to be impacted by Hurricane Florence, please reach out to your local coordinator for any updates on the timing of your event and please stay safe! 

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