18 Feb Doing Our Part to Combat Marine Debris: An Interview with Clean Ocean Access
Marine debris is a problem, and we all know it. A short walk along the beach puts you in contact with the evidence: plastic bottles and bags, food containers, fishing line, and more litter. But few of us may realize just how devastating this problem is.
A study published in 2015* quantified the amount of plastic waste travelling from land to the ocean at 8 million metric tons of plastic each year. That’s equivalent to five grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world. And based on our prolific use of plastic, that amount is only projected to grow rapidly.
As an industry, we cannot afford to sit back and watch the problem explode, for our business depends on having water that is clean enough to attract boaters. So we went to Dave McLaughlin, executive director of Clean Ocean Access, for advice. The mission of this Rhode Island-based organization is to take action today so future generations can enjoy the ocean—by eliminating marine debris, improving coastal water quality, and protecting shoreline access.
And there is good news. “Marine debris is a solvable problem,” says McLaughlin. “It starts by people on land making different decisions … We have to be the ones to make it happen.” Here are a few ways our industry can learn from Clean Ocean Access about stemming the tide of marine debris.
SKIMMING MARINE DEBRIS AND EDUCATING THE PUBLIC
Clean Ocean Access owns and operates four trash skimmers in Rhode Island. These large box-like units are positioned in the water to collect marine debris while also aerating the water and cleaning up oil sheen to ultimately improve water quality.
The skimmers play an important environmental role, but they are also valuable educational tools. In 2017 alone, Clean Ocean Access collected some 8,000 pounds of marine debris and catalogued what was skimmed. They also installed signage by the skimmers so the public can learn more, educated several hundred students, and exposed thousands of people via social media and other communications about the threat of marine debris.
In terms of items collected in 2017, the biggest culprit by far was food wrapping/containers, which accounted for 41% of the waste skimmed last year. But items collected ran the gamut—from food containers to cigarette butts and filters, plastic straws, balloons, plastic caps and lids, fishing line, 6-pack holders, and much more. Take a look at the chart of what was collected in their 2017 skimmer report (click here for the report, and scroll down for the chart). Their findings are a vivid reminder to skip items like plastic straws, balloons, plastic food containers, disposable coffee cups and lids, and other items.
As an industry, one way we can help reduce this debris is by installing more skimmers on our coast. According to McLaughlin, any waterfront location with the geography that allows wind and wave action to accumulate debris (and someone in that location who can document that debris collects on a regular basis) is a candidate for a trash skimmer.
TRASH SKIMMERS: NUTS & BOLTS
Once you have identified a location where debris accumulates, about 8 feet of dock space is required for a skimmer. The units cost approximately $11,000 and an estimated 60 cents a day for the electricity to run the unit. There are also pumps to oversee and an electrical panel to set up.
In terms of day-to-day operation, someone will need to empty the unit on a regular basis. Depending on how much debris collects, it may need to be emptied twice a day or as little as every two to three days. There is weekly and monthly maintenance, and in winter, Clean Ocean Access pulls their units out and covers them for the off-season.
According to McLaughlin, the skimmers are workhorses that run 24 hours a day and can last for many years. If marine debris and poor water quality at your location is a deterrent to your customers and you are inspired to change this, the skimmers are an excellent solution.
When it comes to purchasing the unit, businesses can be creative in how they approach that investment. Your marina might partner with a local nonprofit that can seek grant-funding and develop educational programs around the skimmer; these units create an opportunity to educate the public and can be the type of community project a foundation will want to support. The units also lend themselves well to sponsorship, and signage can be installed to promote a sponsor’s corporate responsibility for the environment.
Although Clean Ocean Access does not produce the skimmers (they are made by a company in Washington state), McLaughlin is happy to be the first point of contact for local marine companies that want to explore their best options for combating the problem of marine debris. McLaughlin has already received requests from locales in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maryland about installing trash skimmers.
LEARNING FROM THE VOLVO OCEAN RACE
When the Volvo Ocean Race came to Newport in 2015, Sail Newport and its volunteers knew they would be flooded with big crowds and lots of spectator boats. In an effort to minimize the event’s environmental footprint, they created a Sustainability Plan. Volvo Ocean Race organizers were impressed with Newport organizers’ sustainability efforts and have used that plan as a model for all the stopovers in this year’s race.
McLaughlin co-chairs the Newport sustainability effort as a volunteer with marine scientist Martha McConnell, PhD. Some examples of what this 14-point plan includes are minimizing the race’s impact by avoiding single-use plastic in the Race Village; reducing the emissions footprint by encouraging race fans to bike, walk, take a water taxi, or carpool to the Village; and using the race as an opportunity to spread the word about ocean health, plastic pollution and sustainability.
We encourage all of you who work in the marine industry to take a look at the Volvo Ocean Race Newport Sustainability Plan here. There may be ideas you could adapt to make your own job site more sustainable.
TAKE A FIRST STEP, HOWEVER SMALL
When it comes to an industry-wide effort to keep our waters clean, marine debris is only one piece of the puzzle—albeit a vitally important one. Plastics and debris in the ocean may be a daunting global problem, but it is one area where each of us can take a first step, however small.
That might mean installing a trash skimmer at your marina or boat yard; or reducing debris that can travel from your job site and into the water by installing a water station so workers use refillable water bottles and coffee cups; or attending one of the many events and beach clean-ups Clean Ocean Access runs throughout the year (find a schedule here); or encouraging a restaurant at your marina to stop using plastic straws; or even inviting friends, family and coworkers to Newport’s Volvo Ocean Race Village this May so you can all learn more.
By working as an industry toward a common goal of eliminating marine debris, we can have a big impact. But that effort is ultimately about more than trash, as Dave McLaughlin says: “It is all about community, about bringing people together and appreciating our differences while finding a common path to making this a better place for future generations.”
To learn more about Clean Ocean Access and their programs, visit their website. Click here to get contact details for the Dave McLaughlin and the organization. You can also stay up to date on the work Clean Ocean Access is doing by subscribing to their e-news here.
*This study was conducted by a scientific working group at UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis and published in the journal Science in February 2015.