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We Can Help Clean the Oceans

New America Media, Commentary, Thomas M. Kostigen Posted: Oct 18, 2008

Editors Note: For those who live near a coast, evidence of pollution on our beaches can be particularly disheartening. But NAM contributor Thomas M. Kostigen says we can take simple steps to help make sure we dont add to ocean pollution. He is the author of You Are Here: Exposing the Vital Link Between What We Do and What That Does to Our Planet (HarperOne).

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean drifts a garbage patch at least twice the size of Texas. The circular rotation around it draws in trash like a vortex. Flotsam and other debris combine to form huge floating clouds of waste. Some of this waste comes from cargo ships--80,000 pairs of Nike sneakers, tens of thousands of rubber duckies that have bobbed around since a cargo spill in 1992 and so on. All of this mashed together with plastic bottles, tops, six-pack holders, and other litter that degrade into smaller and smaller fragments as they are exposed to the elements; bite- size pieces for birds and fish that eventually die from ingesting them.

This lethal marine habitat has grown and expanded over decades. It isn't just cargo ship mishaps that cause the vast waves of waste in the North Pacific Gyre, known as the Eastern Garbage Patch. We contribute to it too. Around 100 million tons of plastic is produced each year, of which about 10 percent ends up in the sea. About 20 percent of this is from ships and platforms, the rest from land.

In other words, about 80 percent of the trash that ends up in the ocean comes from places onshore. The wind carries it, sewage pipes spill it, even our garbage disposals make ways for waste to enter storm water drains and eventually flow out into the ocean.

There is no way to clean it up (the Pacific Ocean is too vast), but here are some simple things we can all do to keep more trash from making its way there:

1. When you visit parks and beaches, keep an eye on food wrappers, plastic sacks, paper plates, drink containers, and other lightweight disposable items that can easily take flight with even the slightest gust of wind. Make sure you either carry these items out with you, or dispose of them properly in trash bins. An even better idea for preventing litter is to pack your food and drinks in reusable containers and reusable canvas bags. If your outing involves sand toys, plastic Frisbees, goggles, flippers, beach balls, or other recreational goods, make sure you retrieve them before you leave. Regardless of whether these items seem like "litter," they'll eventually be swept out to sea and become threats to the health of marine animals.

2. Around town, you can help prevent marine debris by keeping trash out of streets, gutters, walkways, parking lots, lawns, sidewalks, and pretty much everywhere else litter might accumulate. This litter usually finds its way into a local storm drain via rain or wind and thenregardless of how close you live to the nearest coastit's eventually discharged into an ocean, bay, sea or gulf.

3. Even at home, your actions may help reduce the volume of global marine debris. For example, think twice before using toilets as garbage bins for trash and personal care products. Although sewage treatment plants are designed to filter-out bulky items, it's not uncommon for untreated sewageespecially if it's combined with storm waterto be discharged directly into a nearby river or ocean. So remember to use the trashcan instead of the toilet for things (use your imagination here) made from latex, plastic, metal, and silicon.

4. If you engage in recreational or commercial fishing, boating, or sailing, make an effort to prevent fishing gear (nets, ropes, fishing line, buoys, traps) or other materials (like trash) from being discarded overboard. Derelict fishing gear continues to perform its fish-catching functiona term called "ghost fishing"for months, or even years, after it's been accidentally lost or deliberately dumped.

5. In addition to being more conscious of your own actions, consider joining a grassroots or national campaign to beautify a local park, neighborhood, beach or riverbank.

6. Never dump grease down the drain or in the disposal. Grease is the most common cause of sewage-system blockages, which can result in spills into oceans or other waterways.

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