Keeping plastics out of our oceans

Managing waste — specifically plastic — so that it doesn’t end up in our oceans is a worldwide challenge.

The State Department is sending Jenna Jambeck — one of the foremost authorities on global waste and its causes — to the Philippines, Indonesia and Japan to share ideas on reducing the amount of plastic that finds its way into the sea.

In a 2015 study, Jambeck’s team estimated that 8 million tons of trash is deposited in the oceans each year — enough to fill 15 shopping bags for every meter of coastline on the planet.

Removing the trash that’s in the oceans without addressing the waste management practices that put it there is “like mopping the floor when your bathtub is overflowing and the tap’s still on,” Jambeck said. Her work in waste management is an attempt to turn off the tap.

The majority of waste in our oceans is consumer plastic, with the biggest culprits being food wrappers, beverage bottles and caps, plastic bags and cigarette butts (the filters of which are cellulose acetate, a plastic). When sun and salt water break down the plastic, it becomes microplastic that is consumed by sea creatures and enters the food chain.

Jenna Jambeck smiling, with garbage mound and bulldozer in background (Courtesy of Jenna Jambeck)
Jenna Jambeck (Courtesy photo)

Jambeck looks forward to learning from the countries she will visit. She noted that Japan has very low per-capita waste generation.

“I’m interested in seeing their system. And the other countries I’m visiting have really cool zero-waste projects,” she said. “Indonesia’s done some amazing canal cleanup and rehabilitation projects. Each place is doing some really proactive things that are different and outside of what we’re doing in the U.S.”

How to reduce plastic?

Everyone can play a part. Jambeck recommends that you:

  • Avoid water in plastic bottles if you have access to a source of clean drinking water.
  • Avoid plastic drinking straws and other single-use plastics.
  • Take a reusable bag with you when shopping.
  • Choose reuseable bottles over biodegradable bottles, most of which only degrade in industrial compost settings.
  • Pick up litter when you are outside. Uncontained trash on land often ends up in the ocean.

“Because population density is a driver on this issue,” said Jambeck, “these choices, taken collectively, absolutely make a difference.”