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August 25, 1998

Don't Teach Your Trash to Swim

by Woody Justice

There is a waterborne plague and the problem is plastic; not credit cards - they entail difficulty of a different sort - but the cheap, omnipresent, disposable items that persist in the environment. Particularly aquatic environments because the light weight of plastic products mean they easily find their way to waterways where they float and/or drift. There the plastic trash acquires a more dignified name: Marine Debris.

Not all marine debris is plastic, but more than half is, according to the Center for Marine Conservation (CMC). During the 1996 Coastal Cleanup, 61 percent of the trash collected was plastic, including more than 600,000 cigarette butts. (Think about that next time you see one tossed out a car window.) Drainages like the Dog River basin, overdeveloped and urbanized at their sources, are fed trash from roadways, parking lots and stormdrains; some of the long-lasting plastic rubbish accumulates in the watershed but most of it continues downstream to the ocean.

At-sea disposal and accidental loss contribute to the ocean burden of human discards and a fraction of this total actually comes to human notice. CMC estimates that the total trash dumped at sea annually is 14 billion pounds, more than double the US fisheries catch of 6 billion pounds per year. MARPOL, the international treaty prohibiting most off-shore disposal of garbage, helps but water knows no boundaries and enforcement is problematic given the vastness of the ocean.

Most people are familiar with unsightly debris on riverbank or beachfront, but waterborne trash has economic impacts beyond tourism loss. Vessels incur damage when garbage fouls propellers and steering apparatus and blocks sea-water intakes. Wildlife, especially sea turtles and seabirds, also suffer losses - tens of thousands of individuals die annually - and commercial fishing stocks are decreased. Plastic debris is mistakenly ingested as food by marine animals, causing internal damage and intestinal blockage. Discarded fishing line and net fragments entangle water- dependent creatures; the slow death from drowning, choking or starvation that results is called "ghost fishing."



Debris ItemTotal
% of Total

1. Cigarette Butts608,75916.20
2. Plastic Pieces240,8206.41
3. Foamed Plastic Pieces 206,8905.51
4. Plastic Food Bags/Wrappers 205,7625.48
5. Plastic Caps/Lids 179,1034.34
6. Paper Pieces158,9574.23
7. Glass Pieces 140,6603.74
8. Plastic Straws 131,6003.50
9. Metal Beverage Cans130,1343.46
10. Glass Beverage Bottles 127,6333.40
11. Plastic Beverage Bottles121,7033.24
12. Foamed Plastic Cups 96,3942.57

Total Dirty Dozen 2,348,42462.51
During the mid-1980s, the growing aquatic trash problem was obvious with numerous occurrences of medical waste washing up on beaches and a rash of wildlife entanglements in the news. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was tasked in 1987 with a data-gathering and public-outreach mandate and, with the national marine environmental organization CMC, created the Marine Debris Information Office. Government cutbacks severed the partnership in 1996, but CMC maintains an area for public education of marine debris issues on its webpage. (See links below.)

In a related project, CMC organized an annual Coastal Cleanup in 1986 that is now an international effort, growing from 2,800 volunteers in Texas the first year to 300,000 in 55 US states and territories and more than 90 countries. Participants fill out data sheets as they fill up garbage bags, categorizing the composition of retrieved marine debris. (See "Dirty Dozen" table.) Combing almost 6,000 miles of beach, riverbank, harbor and wetland, US volunteers collected almost 3 million pounds of trash during the 1996 event. Alabama's contribution consisted of 1,962 people collecting 30,412 pounds of trash over 96 miles.

One day each year, people are encouraged to devote a few hours and give back just a little bit to Mother Earth by joining hundreds of thousands of others worldwide for the Coastal Cleanup. Its purpose is threefold: To remove debris from the aquatic environment; to increase public awareness and encourage involvement in the issue; and to collect data about the amounts and kinds of debris, providing information used in developing regulations and outreach programs.

The 1998 Coastal Cleanup will take place everywhere on Saturday, September 19th at 8 am. The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) serves as the local coordinator and information clearinghouse. Businesses, community groups and municipalities help sponsor the event. Volunteers are provided with trash bags, check-off lists, gloves, T-shirts and picnics. Participants can choose among 23 zones in the two coastal counties, from Ono Island to Chickasabogue Park. Some sites are more suited for small boats and other personal watercraft. To contact a zone captain in a specific area, volunteers are asked to call Cathy Schimmel at ADECA, 626-0042.

Internet links to water pollution and Alabama coastal issues

Environmental Protection Agency:

Center for Marine Conservation:

Alabama Sea Grant:

ADECA (e-mail):


CMC is also involved in a fisheries management workshop to be held in Mobile on September 12th at the Radisson Admiral Semmes. Sponsored by the Gulf Restoration Network (GRN), it is geared to anyone with an interest in learning about issues relating to sustainable fisheries. Discussions and presentations will explain threats to and solutions for depleted fisheries stocks. Attendees will learn how agencies determine regional management plans and how to effectively take part in those decisions.

This is especially timely in the light of the recent argument for less federal oversight in Gulf fisheries. The shrimpers, charter boat captains and commercial fishers are embattled over a dwindling resource. Meanwhile US Rep. Sonny Callahan has been trying to push through what he thought a "done deal" election-year bill to extend state jurisdiction beyond 3 miles offshore.

The workshop runs from 8 am to 4:30 pm. There is a $10 registration fee and lunch is provided. To register or find out more, call GRN at 504-525-1528, or CMC at 202-429-5609.

The Harbinger, P.O. Box U-980, Mobile, AL 36688-0001