This September, Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup celebrates its 30th anniversary. Over the past three decades, the Cleanup has seen more than 10 million volunteers remove nearly 200 million pounds of trash from 350,000 miles of coastline. The time, energy and enthusiasm demonstrated by these volunteers are a true testament to the devotion so many people feel for the ocean.

As legwarmers were replaced by skinny jeans and Walkman radios became iPhones, the Cleanup evolved into something new. With ocean plastics increasingly at the forefront of public concern, the data collected during the Cleanup sparked a global dialogue on developing solutions to keep debris out of the water. Ocean Conservancy recognized that the cleanup is just one piece of a greater strategy for keeping our ocean trash free. The data collected by volunteers participating in the Cleanup has helped inform the body of science dedicated to solving this problem, and Ocean Conservancy is working with The Coca-Cola Company and other partners to stop trash at its source.

The need for new and innovative solutions was recently underscored by a study in Science, which estimated that 8 million metric tons of plastic debris enters our ocean each year from land-based sources—primarily due to a lack of fundamental waste management systems in developing and emerging markets.

The problem of plastic in the ocean is a global phenomenon; no country or region can claim to be untouched by the issue. But we now have research that suggests a significant proportion of this plastic enters the ocean from a relatively concentrated geography. The majority of it comes from rapidly growing economies, where there is a mismatch between the amount of plastic being used and the capacity of the in-country waste management system to handle this greater influx of waste.

Cleanup volunteers have also witnessed the mismatch between plastic consumption and waste management for decades. They have been the ones who have scoured beaches and waterways around the world tirelessly working to prevent as much debris from entering the ocean as possible. Their efforts have not only kept more than 200 million pieces of trash from entering the ocean; the data they have collected during the Cleanup has been instrumental in informing policies at the local, national, and international level ranging from bag bans to product redesigns to zero waste communities. 

Nick Kallos
Nicholas Mallos

The ocean plastic challenge facing our marine environments is immense, but solutions built on the actions of individuals, companies and elected officials are at hand. What remains is the will to build a collective movement to make a lasting difference. Doing so will not be easy, but enhanced individual responsibility, new industry leadership, innovative science and smart public policy represent the needed components of a comprehensive solution to the ongoing challenge of marine debris.

In addition to supporting the Cleanup for more than two decades, The Coca-Cola Company has strengthened its commitment to devising global solutions to plastic pollution in our ocean as a Founding Member of the Trash Free Seas Alliance®, and a Steering Committee member of the Ocean Solutions Initiative—a signature initiative of the Alliance. We are collaborating to research strategies to improve waste management in developing economies by understanding major plastic pollution pathways, local waste management value chains, and exploring funding mechanisms to identify business solutions that are good for the ocean and the communities that depend on it. The findings from this work will be published later this month, in the wake of the 30th Anniversary Cleanup. 

The Cleanup continues to be a critical part of the solution for ending marine debris. The global volunteer effort for our ocean is unparalleled by any other. After 30 years, our Cleanup volunteers are still going strong. We certainly could not have reached our many milestones without them.

Join Ocean Conservancy and the millions of volunteers around the world make the 30th International Coastal Cleanup the most effective Cleanup yet

And if all goes well, then in a not-too-distant September, we can hopefully celebrate our greatest milestone of all: gathering at the beach for the International Coastal Cleanup only to realize that there is no trash to pick up.

Nicholas Mallos is director of Ocean Conservancy's Trash Free Seas Alliance. Follow him on Twitter @NickMallos.