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.)...

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