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Kids picking up trash Kids picking up trash on a beach. (Photo: Randy Faris/Corbis)

Oceans of Trash

Jumbo patches of junk floating in the world's oceans cause problems for humans, wildlife, and planet Earth

By Dante A. Ciampaglia | null null , null

Litter isn't just a problem in local parks and on sidewalks. It's also threatening the health of the Earth's oceans.

According a report released earlier this month by the United Nations (UN), our oceans are filling up with trash. The garbage gets into the oceans when people litter. Some boaters and beachgoers throw their trash directly into the water.

Trash also gets thrown into rivers that flow into oceans. In fact, most ocean trash comes from rivers. In Australia, for example, 80 percent of ocean trash comes from waterways far from the sea.

The biggest concern about ocean trash is that most of it is plastic. In some places, nearly 80 percent of the ocean trash that has been collected is made of plastic, according to the UN report.

Plastic can take up to 1,000 years to biodegrade, or break down into smaller parts, once it's thrown away. So all of the plastic that ends up in the ocean sticks around for a really long time. These plastic products get caught in ocean currents and end up in large "garbage patches" in the water. One of these garbage patches is about the size of Texas, according to scientists.

Danger to All

People rarely see these garbage patches because they are created in areas of the ocean far away from land. But they pose a big problem for both humans and wildlife.

Plastic and other junk that ends up in the ocean can wash up on beaches. This can be harmful to birds and other animals that live on the shore. Seagulls are one example. If plastic gets mixed in with the food that these birds eat, it can hurt their stomachs.

Humans can be affected by beach trash as well. Some plastic objects can have sharp or jagged edges. People who walk barefoot on the beach could cut themselves on trash hidden in the sand. Also, trash can carry germs that make people sick.

Plastic can be deadly for animals that live in the ocean. For example, turtles and seals think plastic bags floating in the ocean are jellyfish. The turtles and seals swallow the bags. That can cause the animals to choke, drown, or starve.

How to Help

Without urgent action, the UN says in its report, the ocean trash problem will only get worse. The report suggests several ways to address the problem. These solutions include better enforcement of littering laws and creation of programs to raise awareness of the problem.

What can individuals do to solve this problem? They can drink from reusable water bottles. They can use cloth grocery bags instead of plastic ones. People can also volunteer with groups that clean up beaches and rivers.

One of the largest volunteer groups is Ocean Conservancy. In 2008, 400,000 Ocean Conservancy volunteers collected 6.8 million pounds of trash from beaches. By doing that, the volunteers kept the trash from getting into the oceans.

The problem of ocean trash "is entirely preventable," Ocean Conservancy spokesman Tom McCann told the news organization CNN. "It's something we can solve ourselves."

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