How To Fight The Actual Source Of Ocean Garbage (Which Isn’t Straws) 

How To Fight The Actual Source Of Ocean Garbage (Which Isn’t Straws) 

Can we stop being mad at plastic straws for a minute? Some folks are saying plastic straws are stupid and useless while others make the point that I’m disabled and I need these to drink.

What if the fate of the ocean doesn’t hinge on plastic straws at all? Because the largest source of garbage plastic in the ocean is fishing waste.

Straws make up a tiny fraction of ocean garbage. If we’re serious about getting plastic out of the ocean, why not focus on things that are bigger contributors to the problem? (Oh yeah, because then we’d have to convince corporations and governments, rather than pretending it’s all about our individual choices.)

The famous “garbage patch” in the Pacific ocean is made of 46 per cent fishing gear, things like discarded nets. Sometimes fishing gear gets lost, but sometimes it’s just abandoned in the ocean. What do you even do with an old, gigantic, past-its-prime fishing net?

In many places, it’s easiest to just dump it. That gear can entangle animals, and it can degrade into microplastics, tiny particles of garbage that are now mixed in with plankton throughout the ocean.

So there are now efforts to give the fishing industry places to properly dispose of nets, either ones they’re retiring, or “ghost gear” they haul in from the sea. Fishing for Energy is one US-based program with take-back stations at 48 ports.

Metal parts are recycled and the plastic is burned for energy. The Global Ghost Gear Initiative organizes efforts around the world, including tagging nets so that everybody knows who an abandoned or lost net belongs to.

Meanwhile, a project in the Phillipines buys old nets (thus giving fishers a financial incentive to drag the things to a take-back station) and turns them into carpeting. In the US, there is an agency NOAA Marine Debris, specifically for studying and try to reduce ocean garbage.

Here is their page on things you can do to help: For individuals, it’s mostly beach cleanups and not throwing your shit in the water.

But what can we do to stop the garbage that comes from commercial fishing? So far there’s not much in the way of organised campaigns for citizens to target fishing waste, but you can find out whether your local government, or the companies that catch the fish you eat, support the anti-garbage initiatives mentioned above. Adam Minter, writing at Bloomberg, suggests that we put some pressure on companies to pledge that their fish will be harvested with responsible use of fishing gear.

Seafood Watch doesn’t mention ocean garbage as one of their sustainability criteria, but perhaps if enough people demand it, they will. (I reached out to Seafood Watch to ask if they consider it when scoring fish; they haven’t yet responded.)

You can do your own cleanups and use the Clean Swell app to log the garbage you find. The app has a grid of buttons for different, common types of coastline garbage. You walk along – or boat, or dive – and tap each thing you find. (Pick it up, please.) Fishing gear is one of the options, alongside cigarette butts, toys, and more. The data goes back to the Ocean Conservancy, and they use it to look for patterns in what kinds of garbage people are finding and where to focus their cleanup and prevention efforts.


  • I guess the plastic straw thing is more about trying to combat the mentality of single use plastics. While this may not be the biggest contributor to plastic in the oceans, the way of thinking that involves such wasteful practices is no doubt something that still needs to be tackled.
    This would then also start combating the same behavior in the fishing industries perhaps?

    • The thing with the straws is I’m still not clear how the straw gets from my kitchen bin into the ocean.

      • It’s not necessarily YOUR straw, because that’s in the bin.

        It’s the straws belonging to the tossers who throw their empty McDonalds/KFC/Hungry Jacks/Red Rooster/etc… drinks cup and straw, or juice popper, or Boostjuice cup etc… onto the road while walking along, or out of their car, into streams and drains etc…

        In many Asian countries, it’s also common to sell drinks in clear plastic bags, with a piece of plastic string tied to one side, and a straw stuck in it. These also get carelessly discarded with impunity onto the roads or in into monsoon drains, which carry them straight out to sea.

        I’m sure you can think of other situations if you put your mind to it.

  • The straw is tokenism to make people feel like they are making a difference. It’s similar to liking a post.

    • Nonsense! There are billions of the bloody things in the oceans right now, they don’t break down easily and when they do they leave micro plastics all over the place to get into the food chain. If watch any doco on the subject you will see them on the ocean floor everywhere. There is a very easy fix for it too, make the damned things from paper the way they used to.

      • I was in Hong Kong a few weeks ago. Food place had a sign up saying they were doing their part for the environment by not giving out straws. The meal arrived, the drinks were in individual cup sized plastic carry bags. Inside the food bag was plastic disposible gloves so you don’t get messy fingers. These gloves were wrapped in a plastic bag.
        Yes, straws are everywhere and I have seen a doco on ABC, but it’s still feel good tokenism when everything else is taken into account.

        • I acknowledge that they are a puzzle piece to the whole problem, but we need to start somewhere and wax coated paper straws are a very simple fix where plastic staws are concerned. Getting rid of plastic coffee cups for biodegradable substitutes will also go a long way. Tokenism seems a bit trite where plastics are concerned, baby steps.

      • I would be concerned about any doco showing lots of straws on the ocean floor everywhere, and be suspicious they had put them there. I don’t recall ever seeing a straw on the ocean floor when diving in coastal regions. When taking sediment cores well offshore, I also never saw them. John_c is correct that it is tokenism, but a straw is easily given up by most or replaced.

        I don’t know anyone who gets a thrill from receiving a plastic straw (except kids), spoon, knife or fork. By and large they come from fast food establishments, and it allows them to sell food and have you take it away so they do not have to give you a seat and table, or expect you to supplant waitstaff by offering bins for you to clean the table simply by emptying your whole tray into a bin. It is a commercial decision.

        The deal that has been offered and accepted by many is a cheaper meal with cheap cutlery. Personally, I don’t buy into it myself because I think the fast food chains are quite expensive for what they serve. I would either go to a neighbourhood fish and chip shop or pay a little bit extra to sit down and have something just a bit nicer. If the expense is a problem, I suggest homemade sandwiches are a lot cheaper than take-away.

        So this straw thing is a fairly transparently cunning effort to get people to think about what they want (most don’t want a straw, and if they do it doesn’t have to be plastic) and hence put pressure on business for change. It is definitely tokenism, but it is also the ‘thin end of the wedge’, it’s quite clever really.

        I am not a fan of unneccessary plastic so the open deception doesn’t bother but amuses me.

        On the subject of disposable coffee cups: why do people wait around 5 mins for a takeaway coffee to be made when they don’t have 5 mins to sit down and drink it?

    • Spot on @john_c. It’s also something people will willingly give up, or swap for an alternative, so its an easy one to get people onboard with the idea of removing unnecessary plastics.

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