Science

Plastic food packaging now outpaces cigarette butts as most abundant beach trash

An annual global cleanup netted 32.5 million items in 116 countries in one day—including a garden gnome, a couch, and a bathtub.

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Plastic trash in the ecotourism area of Freedom Island, in the Philippines.

Candy wrappers and chip bags have become the most commonly found beach trash, surpassing cigarette butts as the top item for the first time.

That dreary statistic is among the findings in the Ocean Conservancy’s latest report on its annual beach cleanup, when more than 20.8 million tons of trash were collected from the beaches in 116 countries in 2019. That’s 32.5 million items picked up in one day.

Even as plastic packaging, which made up nearly 45 percent of the plastics produced in the U.S., Europe, China, and India between 2002 and 2014, became the dominant plastic in the global waste stream, the lowly cigarette filter clung to first place for the 34-year history of the Ocean Conservancy’s beach cleanups. Now it ranks number two, with 4.2 million butts recovered. Food wrappers top the list, with more than 4.7 million individual wrappers gathered.

A compendium of collected items, tabulated by country and type, published online today. Trash was retrieved from beaches on every continent except Antarctica. (We depend on plastic, but now we're drowning in it. Find out why.)

The other items in the top ten relate to food and drink, and most of those are not recyclable. The list includes bottles and caps, straws and stirrers, cups, lids, take-away containers, and plastic bags. While bottles are highly recyclable, lightweight plastic packaging is often rejected by recycling operations because it clogs machinery.

Cigarette butts, made of cellulose acetate, have long been considered by the environmental group’s scientists as an anomaly—a separate issue that doesn’t speak to the larger consumer trends related to plastic trash. In future cleanups, depending on the number of volunteers and beaches cleaned, the ubiquitous cigarette butt could reclaim first place, says Nicholas Mallos, who directs the Ocean Conservancy’s Trash-Free Seas program.

“Food wrappers taking over as the number one item merely underscores the unsustainable production of single-use, disposable food and beverage packaging,” he says. Complicating matters, much of food packaging either fails to get recycled by consumers or can’t be recycled at all—a condition that Mallos says emphasizes the “gross inadequacies” of managing plastic waste in most communities around the world.

Plastics 101

Only 13 percent of plastic containers and packaging were recycled in the United States in 2017, according to the Environmental Protection Agency—the lowest recycling rate among containers and packaging of any material. ( Discover what can and cannot be recycled.)

The Ocean Conservancy has catalogued each item collected on beach cleanups since 1986, when the first was held, and compiled what it considers the world’s largest database of marine debris by type, with more than nearly 400 million items. The timeline generally shows trends in consumer behavior, as well as availability of various products. For example, beverage cans and paper bags fell out of the top ten after the 2009 cleanup, about a decade after bottled water became widely distributed globally and the use of plastic shopping bags in grocery stores surpassed paper bags. Glass bottles disappeared out of the top ten in 2017. That was the year plastics first secured its dominance in the top ten as the most collected material.

“The Ocean Conservancy’s dataset is such an important snapshot in time on plastic pollution for everyone concerned about this issue around the world,” says Jenna Jambeck, a University of Georgia engineering professor and a National Geographic Fellow. “I have been referencing the data since I began researching this topic 19 years ago.”

The 2019 cleanup haul, quantified by the group’s statisticians in terms suitable to ocean-dwelling creatures, included enough straws for 322 octopuses to drink eight smoothies a day for a year, and enough plastic cutlery to serve a three-course meal to 66,000 sharks. Volunteers also collected enough fishing line for a seabird to fish from 55 miles above the ocean surface.

As usual, cleaning up 24,456 miles (39,358 kilometers) of beaches, from the Asian Pacific to the North Atlantic to South America, also netted a collection of oddities. A garden gnome turned up on a beach in Japan, proving their apparent ubiquity. Among the other finds: a barbecue grill in Hong Kong, a bathtub in Jamaica, an ironing board in Venezuela, a couch in western Mexico, a golf bag in Norway, and a tiki torch in California.

The cleanup is held on the third Saturday in September, including this year. But because of the pandemic, volunteers are encouraged to work solo or in small groups—or skip the beach altogether and concentrate on reducing waste in their own homes.

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