Ocean Conservancy works for trash-free seas

Ocean Conservancy International Coastal Cleanup

Scenes from Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup, which happens worldwide each September

Ocean Conservancy works for trash-free seas

By Flannery Winchester

Each month, Citizens’ Climate Lobby hosts an online meeting featuring a guest speaker to educate listeners on topics related to climate change and our Carbon Fee and Dividend proposal. Check out recaps of past speakers here.

Julia Roberson Ocean Conservancy

Julia Roberson

Our May 2018 guest speaker was Julia Roberson, Vice President of Communications for Ocean Conservancy. CCLers who followed along with our 2017 Congressional Education Day may remember that Julia moderated a panel discussion after a screening of Chasing Coral, and we were thrilled to welcome her back to learn more about her work. After all, CCL focuses on effective carbon pricing, but if we’re going to pass along a healthy planet to our kids and grandkids, we need our friends like Ocean Conservancy to succeed too.

Ocean Conservancy is a national nonprofit organization that has been focused on ocean health for 47 years. They have a robust network of 130,000 members and 875,000 “online ocean activists,” whose efforts are supported by staff presence in places like Washington, D.C., Alaska, California, Texas, Florida and more. Because our oceans and waterways face a variety of complex challenges, Ocean Conservancy has programs focused on many topics: Arctic health, restoration after the BP oil spill, healthy fisheries, ocean acidification and more.

Trash Free Seas

On the May call, Julia’s focus was Ocean Conservancy’s “Trash Free Seas” program, which focuses on plastic and other pollution in the ocean. For more than 30 years, this program has worked to address what Julia said is one of the most visible, tangible, and solvable problems facing our ocean.

Showing us the photo to the left, Julia said, “Every single piece of trash—it’s not a stretch to say that was probably all in someone’s hands at some point. There is something we can all do about this problem. I find that really empowering.”

Recently, there’s been a boom in public awareness of this problem. How many of us have seen the video of the plastic straw in the turtle’s nose, or the image of the seahorse with his tiny tail curled around a cotton swab? We’ve also seen national news coverage about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which represents less than 3% of the trash in our ocean.

The increased awareness of the issue, combined with the personal nature of trash, makes this an easy entry point for people new to conservation. “Trash is one of those issues that we feel can bring people into the culture of ocean conservation as well as the stewardship of our planet more broadly,” Julia explained.

International Coastal Cleanup

The most effective way Ocean Conservancy brings people in is through their International Coastal Cleanup event. “This is the world’s largest single-day volunteer effort on behalf of the ocean,” Julia said. Taking place the third Saturday of September for the last 30 years, the cleanup is open to anyone in the world who is near a waterway—in fact, a lot of the trash flowing into oceans comes from rivers.

Over the years, the event has produced some impressive results. More than 12 million volunteers from 153 countries have participated in removing 228 million pounds of trash. In last year’s cleanup alone, over 20 million pounds of trash were picked up off coastlines and out of waterways in 112 countries!

As if that weren’t enough, the International Coastal Cleanup also generates some other significant results: scientific ones. “We collect data from volunteers on what they’re finding on the beaches,” Julia explained. “That has really informed the marine science community when it comes to looking at how trash impacts different types of marine animals and figuring out what local solutions can make a difference.”

Historically, volunteers have filled out physical data cards to record what types of trash they remove and how much. They would send those cards to Ocean Conservancy, who then logged all the information. “That’s pretty cumbersome, and it takes a lot of time to get all those data cards collected,” Julia admitted. “So a few years ago, we launched our CleanSwell app.”

The CleanSwell app is available for download now, and it allows any volunteer to record when, where and what trash they collect and properly dispose of. The information goes straight into Ocean Conservancy’s database, which itself will relaunch with updates in July. “This has really changed the game for us,” Julia said, because it’s a more immediate way to collect the data and it’s easy for volunteers to use.

Get involved

The next International Coastal Cleanup will take place on September 15, and maps of specific cleanups will be released in July. “We’re really excited about the event this year because there has been so much attention and focus on this issue,” Julia said.

If you just can’t wait till September to get started, cleanups are happening all the time. “We would love to see you all join one!” Julia said. Visit signuptocleanup.org to join the International Coastal Cleanup, find a cleanup happening sooner, or host a cleanup yourself using Ocean Conservancy’s helpful instructions.

As you participate in these direct cleanups, you can rest assured that Ocean Conservancy’s efforts are helping address the problem at its source, too. “We work at the international policy level, and we’re encouraging industry commitments and improvements to stop the flow of trash into our ocean,” Julia explained. That includes improving waste management and collection in countries where development is exploding. Additionally, Ocean Conservancy founded the Trash Free Seas Alliance, a coalition of groups and scientists working on things like biodegradable plastic and more recyclable plastics.

While those shifts happen, don’t waste any more time—join a cleanup near you!

To hear more from Julia, including some Q&A with CCL volunteers, watch the entire May meeting on YouTube or listen to the podcast. Follow Ocean Conservancy on Facebook and Twitter at @OurOcean and Julia Roberson at @juliaroberson.

Flannery Winchester
Flannery Winchester has put her words to work for magazines, for marketing agencies, and now for our earth as CCL's Communications Director. She is grateful to spend every day working to preserve this beautiful planet.