**Note: This kicks off a series of stories in advance of the 2014 International Coastal Cleanup.

As a team of scientists, artists and educators assembled for the Gyre Expedition in June 2013 in Alaska, instead of being solely awed by the beauty or wildlife, they also were in awe of the garbage. On their 450-nautical mile journey, they saw firsthand some of the millions of pounds of trash that litters coastlines across the world, negatively impacting the ocean, its wildlife and the people who earn their living from the ocean.

While most of the crew observed, documented and collected shoreline trash, artists selected pieces of garbage they could turn into art to raise awareness of marine debris and its impact on wildlife. The findings culminated in a 7,500-square-foot art and science exhibition at the Anchorage Museum featured through September 2014.

“After all, raising awareness of an issue is a first step toward solving one,” said Nick Mallos, director of the Trash Free Seas Alliance at Ocean Conservancy, and a participant on the Gyre Expedition. “It would have been easy to leave this expedition disheartened. But I actually left with hope. Yes, we have touched and blemished these landscapes, but we haven’t ruined them. To me, the beauty, raw power and incredible wildlife that exist are all the more reason to keep plastics and other forms of debris out of our waterways, off of our beaches and most importantly out of our ocean.”

For nearly 30 years, Mallos’ organization, Ocean Conservancy has been working to do just that through its annual International Coastal Cleanup (ICC), which raises awareness about marine debris and mobilizes people to take action. In 2013, 648,015 volunteers in 92 countries picked up over 12 million pounds of trash from beaches, lakes and waterways in support of ICC. On September 20, 2014, volunteers will come together again for the 29th ICC, including thousands of Coca-Cola employees.

Debris from cleanup

Coca-Cola has supported the ICC and Ocean Conservancy since 1995 through educational outreach, community engagement, research, industry collaborations, marketing and more. With the Company’s packaging  among the debris that can be found improperly disposed of on shorelines around the world, Coca-Cola believes it has an obligation and embraces its responsibility to help address marine litter. Last year, more than 17,000 Coca-Cola employees from 22 countries covered 300 miles of coastline to collect 516,000 pounds of trash.

Volunteers are asked to do more than pick up trash. They are tasked with cataloging every item collected. Ocean Conservancy uses the data to produce the world’s only annual country-by-country, state-by-state index of the marine debris problem.

Mallos says, “While cleanups alone can’t solve this problem, volunteers are instrumental in helping us assemble our Ocean Trash Index. This provides us with a snapshot of what’s trashing our ocean so we can work toward preventing the most abundant and problematic items of trash from reaching the water in the first place. People don’t have to go to the beach to cleanup though—picking up after a picnic in the park or run along the lake, and making sure trash is properly disposed of in a secure spot, all go a long way to prevent marine debris before it starts. 

Nick Mallos, Director, Trash Free Seas Program
Nick Mallos, Director, Trash Free Seas Program

Ocean trash is a global problem that requires a systemic solution equal in scale. The biggest impact will come from stopping the massive amounts of plastic litter before it travels over land, and into our waterways and ocean. This means continuing to improve materials recovery and source reduction in places where trash management and recycling technologies are well established. Simultaneously though, attention must be focused on devising ways to establish waste management infrastructure in rapidly industrializing countries where populations and plastics consumption is increasing but where fundamental waste management infrastructure does not yet exist. Simply put:  making certain the capacity to manage trash catches up with our ability to produce it.

At its core ocean trash is not an ocean problem. It’s a people problem. That means we are the solution. And it’s going to take all of us—researchers, academics, organizations, companies and individuals—working together toward increased marine debris prevention.

Get Involved!