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Oceans of Trash

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

The United Nations (UN) released a report earlier this month about ocean trash. Oceans around the globe are filling up with garbage. It 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.

The biggest concern about ocean trash is that most of it is plastic.

Plastic can take up to 1,000 years to 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. They 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. That's because the trash masses in areas that are far away from land. But the patches still cause 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

The UN has suggested several ways to help put an end to the trash problem. First on the list is better enforcement of laws against littering. The UN also recommends creation of a program to teach people about the effects of ocean trash.

What can people 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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