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.