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Top items from beach cleanup: plastics, plastics and more plastics

The Ocean Conservancy's annual beach cleanup produces more than 20 million pounds of trash and the 10 most common items are all made of plastic.
by James Rainey and Devyn Rafols-Nuñez /  / Updated 
The 2017 Ocean Conservancy International Coastal Cleanup at Kingman Island, outside Washington, D.C.
The 2017 Ocean Conservancy International Coastal Cleanup at Kingman Island, outside Washington, D.C.Joy Asico / Ocean Conservancy

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All of the 10 most common items collected during an annual beach cleanup were partially or entirely made of plastic — the latest measure of how the man-made waste is increasingly fouling the Earth’s oceans.

In an annual report on its International Coastal Cleanup, the Ocean Conservancy reported Wednesday that glass beverage bottles are no longer among the most common items picked up by volunteers during a one-day, worldwide beach cleanup. They have been supplanted by another form of plastic — foam food containers.

Nearly 300 million tons of plastic is produced globally each year and while most of it can be recycled, approximately 90 percent is not, with the vast majority of plastic waste accumulating in landfills and clogging our oceans, waterways and natural habitats, according to a recent study by the peer-review journal Science Advances.

Plastics make up the vast majority of the more than 20 million pieces of trash picked up from beaches and waterways, including the 10 most common items turned in by thousands of volunteers: cigarette butts (which contain plastic fibers), followed by food wrappers, beverage bottles, bottle caps and grocery bags — all made of plastic.

Dianna Cohen, CEO and Co-founder of Plastic Pollution Coalition, calls plastic pollution a global crisis and says that most countries, including the U.S., lack proper infrastructure to assess, collect and process or effectively recycle the excess plastic waste.

“Everybody needs to wake up,” said Cohen. “If we can’t clean it up, we can stem the tide and turn off the faucet of this stuff coming into the ocean, coming into the environment.”

New to the top 10 list of most common beach debris items were the foam take-out containers. Volunteers helping the Ocean Conservancy with the cleanup on Sept. 15 collected more than 580,000 containers. There were 2.4 million of the beach-waste leader — cigarette butts.

“Over the years, we have seen plastics creeping into the top-10 list, displacing items like rope, beverage and paper bags,” said Nicholas Mallos, director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program. “But this is the first year that all 10 of the top-10 items collected are made of plastic. Given that plastic production is rising, this could be the start of a long and troubling trend.”

Scientists estimate that a total of about 8 million metric tons of plastic waste flows into the oceans every year. Researchers with Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated in 2015 that 90 percent of seabirds have ingested some amount of plastic.

The September cleanup by the Ocean Conservancy relied on nearly 790,000 volunteers working in more than 100 countries. They turned in everything from vampire teeth, to a megaphone to Christmas lights to a six-seat golf cart.

Activists and scientists hope to slow the production and use of plastic products to stem the flow into the seas. Several cities this year have banned items like plastic straws. A young Dutch inventor plans in August or September to deploy a system he says can clear as much as half of the plastic debris from the Pacific Garbage Patch, the giant expanse of plastic debris in the North Pacific Ocean.

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