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Marine debris - the hidden global problem

By Ian Kiernan - posted Friday, 18 September 2009

Marine debris is a truly global problem - we are all dumping on each other. Plastic bags dumped in Western Australia have been found on the east coast of South Africa and a bottle dropped off the South African coast can just as easily end up in Mozambique.

It’s also a problem that suffers greatly from being “out of sight, out of mind”.

Back in 1986 I became acutely aware of the problem when I competed in the BOC round-the-world solo yacht race. The conditions, the physical challenge and the solitude made a lasting impression on me, but it was the rubbish carpeting once clean, majestic oceans that really changed my life.


Fridges, computers, bottles, fishing line, chip packets, televisions - you name it: it ends up in our oceans. In fact, just off the coast of Hawaii is a plastic gyre twice the size of Britain where the water is filled with six times more plastic than plankton.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) recently released the first ever study of the impact of marine debris across the world’s oceans. The report "Marine Litter: A Global Challenge" (PDF 6.58MB) found that plastic, especially plastic bags and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, are the most pervasive type of marine - debris on the planet and that plastic makes up more than 80 per cent of all rubbish found in several seas worldwide.

Now that’s obviously a major issue for our natural environment, but it’s also a serious concern for our marine life, such as whales, turtles and dolphins, and our seabirds. The journey for a piece of rubbish from supermarket aisle to the middle of the ocean is often a lethal one. Along the way many marine life fatally mistake the dumped plastic for food. In fact, according to UNEP, plastic is accountable for the deaths of more than a million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine mammals every year.

It’s the things we’ve become so addicted to - plastics and the other things we use once and discard - that are spoiling our oceans. In fact, as much as 80 per cent of the marine debris in coastal waters and the deep oceans originate from our land-based activities. That means by adopting the refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle approach in our day-to-day living, we’ll go a long way to tackling the problem.

Clean Up the World, run in partnership with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), is one of the world’s largest community-based environmental programs. Its participants and volunteers are helping to combat the visible consequences of our addiction by undertaking activities such underwater and beach clean ups, marine debris education programs and monitoring projects in many countries right across the globe including Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Brunei Darussalam, Cayman Islands, Fiji, France, Germany, Ghana, Greece, India, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Korea (Republic Of), Kuwait, Liberia, Malaysia, Maldives, New Zealand, Philippines, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Saudi Arabia, Seychelles, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Trinidad And Tobago, and United Arab Emirates. You can see the full list of activities at here.

These Clean Up the World participants understand just how serious a problem marine debris is, and how critical it is that we move swiftly to fix it. That’s why year round, as well as on the Clean Up the World Weekend, they bring volunteers, their friends, family, or work colleagues together to take real action. They know every thing they do makes a difference - that every piece of rubbish removed is one less item that is likely to end up in our waterways and that even if just one person motivated to do something after they see an awareness campaign, it is worth it.


One of our Clean Up the World ambassadors, David de Rothschild, is one of these participants. Along with a crew of adventurers and scientists, David is preparing to sail across the Pacific through the gyres in the Plastiki - a 60-foot catamaran clad in reclaimed plastic bottles - to highlight the ecological damage being done to the world’s oceans. Keep an eye out for it.

We should all be taking the lead from these people willing to make the commitment to learning more about how we can help protect our environment for future generations. Globally, an estimated 35 million people in 120 countries get involved in Clean Up the World each year, which is fantastic, but there could, and should, be more of us.

We’ve all got a role to play in making certain that the plastic gyres in the middle of our oceans don’t grow any larger, that more dolphins, turtles and seabirds don’t fall victim to the rubbish in our rivers and seas and that our future generations don’t have to deal with the problems we’re creating.

Beating our plastic addiction is not going to be easy, but the failure to do so will be disastrous. We must work together to ensure our oceans and other waterways remain healthy, free of the rubbish created by careless humans, and that our marine life does not become the victim of our greed.

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September 18-20 is Clean Up The World weekend.

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About the Author

Ian Kiernan AO is the Chairman of Clean Up the World.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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