What’s Needed to Put an End to Ocean Cleanups


This week Ocean Conservancy is releasing its yearly data report highlighting the efforts of the nearly 650,000 dedicated volunteers who removed over 12 million pounds of trash from beaches and waterways around the world during the recent International Coastal Cleanup. The release of these data is a great opportunity to celebrate the success of this event, but let’s also use this occasion to highlight the fact that much more needs to be done if society is ever going to rid the ocean of trash. It’s time to shift the emphasis from cleaning up to stopping trash from ever reaching our coasts and waterways in the first place.

Accomplishing trash free seas can’t be done by any one sector of society, but individuals must first embrace their responsibility to keep our ocean clean. Ocean Conservancy data show that personal behavior is behind much of the trash found on our coasts and in our oceans and waterways. Topping the list each September are cigarette butts, bottles, cans, caps, bags, food wrappers and cutlery, much of this left behind by careless beachgoers.  Strange finds, like mattresses, car parts and even a loaded handgun, show that many still view the natural world as an acceptable place to dump unwanted possessions. The vast amount of trash we collect each year highlights the need for a much greater respect of our natural places and all that they provide to our communities and economies.

Businesses, too, must recognize their contribution to the problem and commit to being agents of change. The private sector needs to take responsibility for its impact and turn to designing and funding lasting solutions. Our economy needs to change from an outdated business model that converts resources into products that are sold, used and disposed, to one based on a fully “circular economy” that places real value on those resources and ensures manufacturers plan from the outset to recover and reuse products in novel ways.

The final ingredient to trash free seas is smart public policy. In the US and abroad, legislative measures have been passed to implement bans of specific products such as single-use grocery bags or take-out containers that are made of plastic, a particularly pernicious ocean trash material. This is a great first step, but there are just too many products that end up in the ocean for us to simply ban our way out of this problem. We need a more systemic approach to public policy that strives to create innovative ways to keep plastics out of the ocean while ensuring society benefits from the many services this material provides. This will require a broader debate about the appropriate role of the private sector in contributing to ocean trash solutions and public support for elected officials – from the local to the national level – who are leading the way.

None of these actions in isolation can solve the problem, but more thoughtful individual behavior, new industry leadership, and smart public policy – together – can form the comprehensive solution needed to solve the ongoing challenge of ocean trash. Let’s collectively change how we view the ocean, not as a dumping ground but as the wondrous place that is the very life support system for our planet.

If we do so, rather than turning out to clean up the beach each September, we can all simply enjoy a day at the beach alongside our trash free seas.

Changing Planet

George Leonard is Chief Scientist at Ocean Conservancy. A long-time scuba diver, George knew he wanted to be a marine biologist at the age of 12 when he first watched Jacques Cousteau's TV special on the sleeping sharks of Yucatan in 1975. During his graduate work, he logged over 400 dives in 3 years, studying California's kelp forests, the undersea equivalent of a tropical rain forest.