The Ocean Conservancy’s annual coastal cleanup revealed some disturbing facts, including that every one of the top 10 contaminants contains plastic.

By Marisa Spyker
September 05, 2019
Monty Rakusen/Getty Images

When you look at the toll single-use plastics have taken on our environment, it might seem wildly contradictory to think that the toxic disposables were invented to make life easier. There’s nothing simple, after all, about reversing the damage on our oceans that decades of plastic pollution have already done. (On the contrary, it takes a whole lot of creativity and a feat of engineering.)

What is easy, however, is choosing to be a part of the solution. At the International Coastal Cleanup, an event organized by the Ocean Conservancy, more than a million people come together worldwide to participate in the largest trash pickup along our shorelines each year. In 2018, volunteers from 122 countries banded together to collect upwards of 23 million pounds of trash.

While that’s all great news, what the heaping pile of waste consisted of is decidedly less uplifting. For the second year in a row, the Ocean Conservancy reported that all 10 of the top items collected are made from plastic, including by far the biggest pollutant, cigarette butts, which contain plastic filters. The usual single-use suspects were also present, such as plastic bags and straws/stirrers.

Related: Meet 10 Heroes Helping To Save Our Oceans: 

But 2018’s top ten list also saw a new offender that has some experts worried. According to the Ocean Conservancy, the number four most common collected item is plastic cutlery, including forks, knives, and spoons (nearly 2 million were recovered from our oceans and beaches).

Considering the takeout companion didn’t crack the list in 2017, that’s a staggering increase. But plastic cutlery raises concerns for other reasons, too. In a 2016 paper published in the scientific journal Marine Policy, researchers found that plastic forks, knives, and spoons are among the deadliest pieces of trash to marine life (ranking behind fishing nets and plastic bags only). This is because cutlery is often mistaken by wildlife, including birds and sea turtles, for food, and the threat is only magnified when the utensils begin to break down into smaller, sharper pieces.

Like all other pollutants on the list, plastic cutlery will eventually break down further into microplastics, which are then ingested by fish and inevitably find their way into our own diets and water supplies. (Like we said, ridding the world of plastic contamination is no easy feat.)

What can we do right now? On September 21st, the Ocean Conservancy will host its 34th annual International Coastal Cleanup—find an organized event near you with this interactive map, or simply visit your nearest beach or waterway to get it on the ocean-cleaning action. And just as you might have already learned to stop sucking and BYO grocery bags, now might be a good time to snag yourself a cute set of reusable cutlery (or start bringing your own from home). Our animal friends’ lives might depend on it.

See the full list of the top 10 ocean pollutants for 2018 below: 

1. Cigarette Butts (5,716,331 collected)
2. Food Wrappers (3,728,712 collected)
3. Straws, Stirrers (3,668,871 collected)
4. Forks, Knives, Spoons (1,968,065 collected)
5. Plastic Beverage Bottles (1,754,908 collected)
6. Plastic Bottle Caps (1,390,232 collected)
7. Plastic Grocery Bags (964,541 collected)
8. Other Plastic Bags (938,929 collected)
9. Plastic Lids (728,892 collected)
10. Plastic Cups, Plates (656,276 collected)