Plastic garbage on beach

This photo of a trash-covered beach in the Philippines was taken during the 2008 cleanup.
Photo: Tamara Thoreson Pierce

On a single day last September, some 390,000 volunteers collected 6.8 million pounds of garbage from coastal locations and waterways throughout the world, providing a stark and detailed snapshot of the trash polluting the world’s oceans.

They picked up 3.2 million cigarette butts, the most common single item, according to the figures released Tuesday in the Ocean Conservancy’s Marine Debris Index.

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They retrieved 2.1 million food wrappers, plastic bags, and other items from shoreline recreation activities (like beach picnics), the most debris-causing activity, the report said.

In the Philippines volunteers collected 11,077 diapers. In the U.K. they pulled in 19,504 fishing nets.

The 23rd annual International Coastal Cleanup took place at 6,485 sites (many of them inland, because much debris reaches the ocean through other waterways) in 104 countries, 30 percent more countries than the previous year.

Before moving on to the bad news, can I offer a big freaking kudos to the 390,881 international volunteers who devoted a Saturday last September to picking up other people’s messes? That’s a truly awesome turnout. (But no props to my home state, Washington, which didn’t make the top ten states for participation, despite its supposedly eco-enlightened population. Letting Alabama show us up? Lame.)

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OK, so on to the bad news: the cleanup just scratched the surface; there’s lots more debris in the oceans. The uncollected trash damages fishing and tourism industries, threatens human health, and kills wildlife. Last year’s cleanup volunteers found 443 animals entangled or trapped by marine debris and released 268 alive.

“Our ocean is sick, and our actions have made it so,” Ocean Conservancy President and CEO Vikki Spruill said in a news release. “We simply cannot continue to put our trash in the ocean. The evidence turns up every day in dead and injured marine life, littered beaches that discourage tourists, and choked ocean ecosystems.”

By weakening ecosystems, ocean debris reduces animals’ ability to adapt to other stresses, such as climate change. “Just as a person with emphysema or pneumonia would be less likely than a healthy person to survive working in a coal mine, an ocean compromised by many ills is less likely to survive the challenges of climate change,” the report said.

The Ocean Conservancy has worked to sound the alarm about ocean acidification — the changing of the oceans’ pH balance as it continues to absorb excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It’s taken on the more visible problem of trash and debris, Spruill said, because it’s a preventable problem.

“It’s one of the easiest ways we can help to improve our oceans’ resiliency as we deal with the overarching problem of climate change,” she said. “We need to be giving the ocean and all the life in it a fighting chance. And again, we focus on this because it is a preventable problem. There’s a lot we can do to prevent this from happening.”

The report recommends various responses, including several that reach up the supply line of items that end up in the ocean. “Much of what winds up in the ocean wasn’t truly necessary in the first place,” the report said. “We can produce less packaging up front and cut back on debris through programs that encourage positive changes in behavior such as recycling and the routine use of cloth grocery bags.”

A “pay-as-you-throw” garbage pick-up program that charged based on the amount of trash thrown away would reward consumers for buying products with less packaging. (Of course, it might also encourage them to litter more … ) Plastic bag taxes — the sort that fell into, then out of style in several U.S. cities — could also help.

Also included are technological solutions, such as photodegradable six-pack rings that weaken when exposed to sunlight, allowing ensnared animals to break free. The report offers an argument for compostable plastics, which cost more than most conventional plastics: “Where new technologies seem too expensive on first glance, we must weigh aspects like price against hidden costs like waste management, dead and injured animals, and greenhouse gas emissions.”

The Conservancy suggests a number of personal action items, including signing up for this year’s cleanup, on September 19.

“We have to ultimately change our behavior,” Spruill said. “We have to be more responsible with our trash.”