Posted by: Clean Up the World | 03/09/2009

Marine debris – the hidden global problem

Marine debris is a truly global problem – we are all dumping on each other. Plastic bags dumped in Western Australia have been found on the east coast of South Africa and a bottle dropped off the South African coast can just as easily end up in Mozambique.

It’s also a problem that suffers greatly from being “out of sight, out of mind”.

Back in 1986 I became acutely aware of the problem when I competed in the BOC round-the-world solo yacht race. The conditions, the physical challenge and the solitude made a lasting impression on me, but it was the rubbish carpeting once clean, majestic oceans that really changed my life.

Fridges, computers, bottles, fishing line, chip packets, televisions – you name it, it ends up in our oceans. In fact, just off the coast of Hawaii is a plastic gyre twice the size of Britain where the water is filled with six times as much plastic as plankton.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) recently released the first ever study of the impact of marine debris across the world’s oceans. The report “Marine Litter: A Global Challenge” found that plastic, especially plastic bags and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, are the most pervasive type of marine litter debris on the planet and that plastic makes up over 80 per cent of all rubbish found in several seas worldwide.

Now that’s obviously a major issue for our natural environment, but it’s also a serious concern for our marine life, such as whales, turtles and dolphins, and our seabirds. The journey for a piece of rubbish from supermarket aisle to the middle of the ocean is often a lethal one. Along the way many marine life fatally mistake the dumped plastic for food. In fact, according to UNEP, plastic is accountable for the deaths of more than a million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine mammals such every year.

It’s the things we’ve become so addicted to – plastics and the other things we use once and discard – that are spoiling our oceans. In fact, as much as 80 per cent of the marine debris in coastal waters and the deep oceans originates from our land-based activities. That means by adopting the refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle approach in our day-to-day living, we’ll go a long way to tackling the problem.

Clean Up the World members and volunteers are helping to combat the visible consequences of our addiction by undertaking activities such underwater clean ups, beach clean ups, marine debris education programs and marine debris monitoring projects in countries including Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Brunei Darussalam, Cayman Islands, Fiji, France, Germany, Ghana, Greece, India, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Korea (Republic Of), Kuwait, Liberia, Malaysia, Maldives, New Zealand, Philippines, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Saudi Arabia, Seychelles, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Trinidad And Tobago, and United Arab Emirates. See the full list of activities here

One of our ambassadors, David de Rothschild, is also helping to tackle the problem. Along with a crew of adventurers and scientists, David is preparing to sail across the Pacific in the Plastiki – a 60-foot catamaran made from reclaimed plastic bottles – to highlight the ecological damage being done to the world’s oceans. Keep an eye out for it.

Beating our addiction is not going to be easy, but we must take action together to ensure our oceans remain healthy and our save our marine life.

Ian Kiernan AO



  1. This blog rocks! I gotta say, that I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, 🙂

    A definite great read.. ..


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