Too Valuable to Toss: Why We Should Partner With Industry to Eliminate Ocean Trash

The biggest challenge we face in saving our ocean is that so many of the threats are beneath the ocean's surface, literally out of sight and out of mind.
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The biggest challenge we face in saving our ocean is that so many of the threats are beneath the ocean's surface, literally out of sight and out of mind.

But on September 17, hundreds of thousands of volunteers will help tackle one very visible problem that impacts all of us -- trash in our ocean and waterways -- during the International Coastal Cleanup. (Visit to find a Cleanup site at a waterway near you.)

Beyond being unsightly, trash hurts wildlife, ecosystems and local economies.

We're throwing money away

When it comes to cleanup costs for trash in our ocean and waterways, we are essentially throwing money away. When the California Department of Transportation conducted an intensive litter cleanup pilot project just outside San Francisco, they discovered it would cost $50,000 per week just to keep five miles of highway clean. Consider that California has 16,000 miles of highway, and that figure would skyrocket to millions of dollars per year.

Today, communities with tight fiscal budgets are shouldering colossal costs picking up trash. If we could prevent trash from getting in the streets and along our waterways in the first place, those precious dollars could be dedicated to education, health care, social services or other environmental issues.

Much of this ocean trash starts out on land, but we are all connected to this issue no matter where we live because trash travels. A piece of trash can start out in Des Moines and literally end up in the middle of the ocean. The ocean truly is the end of the pipe for all trash items that escape proper disposal.

Ocean Conservancy has built a social movement for trash free seas with our flagship International Coastal Cleanup. This is our 26th year organizing the world's largest volunteer effort for ocean health, and the momentum keeps growing. People from Nebraska to India and Africa join the Cleanup because they are passionate about our ocean and want to make a difference.

Nearly 145 million pounds of trash later, Ocean Conservancy has learned that removal alone is not enough. The real solution is stopping trash from reach our waterways and the ocean in the first place.

And that's exactly what the public wants. In a recent survey, people were asked what they thought were the biggest threats in the ocean. They named trash in the water second only to spilled oil.

Trash is an emotional public issue and there is no better illustration of this concept than the current debate on plastic trash. From front-page Rolling Stone coverage on "the plastic bag wars" to the trench warfare of bag bans and bag fees, it is clear that public anger and demand for action is at an all-time high.

Ocean Conservancy's goal is to eliminate all trash as we know it from the ocean. To do that, we need a comprehensive solution and a broad alliance. The problem is way too big for one organization to solve alone.

In one week, I will be attending the Annual Meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City to announce our commitment to launch a new initiative, the Trash Free Seas Alliance, which will bring together leaders from industry, finance, conservation and science to jointly identify and collaborate on new meaningful, high-impact solutions to ocean trash.

We will get nowhere in solving the problem of ocean trash if we are not sitting down together to leverage our collective experiences. I believe there is tremendous value in being exposed to a diversity of opinions on this issue.

A great example of this is the Better Cotton Initiative, which includes textile retailers such as GAP, as well as activist groups like the Pesticide Action Network and World Wildlife Fund. Together, they are developing new markets and setting industry standards that benefit the environment.

A call to action

Bringing people together to talk with each other -- rather than at each other -- is critical to build the trust needed to develop cross-cutting initiatives. These initiatives could include changing how products are designed, revolutionizing packaging or creating new supply-chain solutions, practices and policies that make trash too valuable to toss.

In a collaborative environment, there's a tangible benefit for information transfer at a range of scales. Smaller corporations can provide a window to innovation for Fortune 500 corporations by sharing what they've learned through rapid, risky and likely small-scale efforts. Large corporations can provide access to expertise acquired through soup-to-nuts partnerships that small corporations simply cannot afford.

For a cooperative alliance like this to work, we must challenge each other to come together in new ways -- not rubber stamp the status quo. And we'll need to be transparent about what works and what doesn't.

My vision is that companies everywhere consider reducing their impact on the ocean a guiding decision principle. When they begin making, financing, supporting or changing a product or policy, I want the value of a healthy ocean to be part of the consideration. It's an ambitious goal, but one that is imperative.

I'm calling on industry to exercise leadership on an issue whose time has come. Let's build on the current momentum around trash in the ocean and lead for solutions together.

An earlier version of this post identified Wal-Mart as a member of BCI, but in fact Wal-Mart is a member of the Textile Exchange, which itself is listed as a member of BCI.

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