The Dirty Dozen: What They Are and What You Can Do to Stop Them

 In Beach Clean-up, Environmental Education, Explore Ecology

by Julia Keane, Explore Ecology Environmental Educator

On any given day at one of our school field trip beach clean ups, I hear at least one student comment on how many cigarette butts are filling their orange buckets. The record stands at 250 in one 15 minute beach clean up in the span of half a mile. This statistic, however, is not as surprising as it used to be. Within the last few years, cigarette butts have become the most common form of marine debris, which is why they are at the top of our Dirty Dozen list.

The Dirty Dozen is a term for the twelve pollutants found most often in the oceans:

  1. Cigarette butts
  2. Plastic bags
  3. Food wrappers
  4. Hard plastic
  5. Plastic bottles and caps
  6. Styrofoam
  7. Broken glass
  8. Aluminum cans
  9. Animal waste
  10. Fertilizers
  11. Household chemicals
  12. Oil

When Explore Ecology Educators teach children about marine debris, we emphasize the point that a majority of these pollutants come from our cities and populated areas, not from people directly on the beach or on boats in the ocean. After the beach clean up, we look at the items we’ve collected and connect them back to our activities on land.

The last lesson in our Creek Kids Series ends with a school yard clean up where students usually find twice as much trash as they found at the beach days before. There’s not only more trash, but bigger pieces of it. Trash that’s found on land before it gets to the ocean was most likely just used that day, so it hasn’t had the chance to be weathered by the elements and broken into smaller pieces. It’s not a coincidence that trash found in the depths of the ocean matches the things we use every day. But how does it get there? Pollutants that end up in the ocean have certain characteristics that allow for easier passage into our waterways. Common characteristics of the Dirty Dozen are their light weight, their shape (they roll or float), and their non-biodegradable design.

Most of these items are designed to be used once and then thrown away. Once they’re thrown away, there are many opportunities for this trash  to become litter on the ground. Walking around town, many people would attest to seeing overflowing trash cans or even recycling bins. Even when people try to do the right thing and put litter in the right receptacle, the lack of proper waste bins in populated areas can lead to the trash, especially the first eight of the Dirty Dozen, ending up on the ground and flowing into our local storm drains. It comes as no surprise, then, that 8 million metric tons of plastic goes into the ocean each year (Ocean Conservancy).

Once these pollutants end up in the ocean, their imapcts are are very harmful to marine ecosystems. Items in the Dirty Dozen list incorporate three types of pollution: physical, toxic, and nutrient. Physical pollution is litter or trash. Examples include plastic bags, styrofoam, and straws. Toxic pollution is any poisonous substance. Examples include motor oil, pesticides, and cleaning solutions. Nutrient pollution is the buildup or concentration of too many nutrients (i.e. phosphate, nitrate) that are healthy for the environment in small amounts. Examples include fertilizer, soaps, and animal waste. The previously mentioned characteristics of the Dirty Dozen play a big role in the different ways they harm marine life.

All creatures of the ocean have their own way of eating, which is why some pollutants can hurt specific animals more than others. Plastic bags, food wrappers, hard plastic, bottle caps, styrofoam, glass, and aluminum cans have all been found in the stomachs of seabirds, fish, and mammals across the world. Seabirds are especially prone to starving to death; they think they’re full when, in reality, they’ve only been eating plastic. “90% of all seabirds alive today have eaten plastic of some kind,” according to the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

However, for some ocean predators, plastics are getting into their bodies through their prey. Bioaccumulation occurs when fish lower on the food chain ingest plastic, are unable to digest it, and transfer it to their predators when they get eaten. This is why there are more frequent reports of giant whales and sharks washing up on the shores with stomachs full of plastic.

Not only are animals mistaking the plastic pollution for food, they are also getting physically caught in it. Many sea mammals get tangled in old fishing gear and as plastic packaging becomes more prevalent, chances of entanglement increase.

But what about toxic and nutrient pollution? All of the items on the Dirty Dozen list emit some sort of toxicity depending on their length of time in the water and concentration, but the ones to focus on are the last four. These cause immediate and long lasting harm to entire ecosystems. Toxins from chemicals and oils are not bound by anything, so they can spread anywhere in the water causing global ocean acidification. Nutrient pollution, largely a result of run-off from farms and urban areas, can cause Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs)  and dead zones, that deplete oxygen for fish and plants.

Now this is the point in the conversation when students start to look up at you with wide eyes, realizing how daunting this problem is. But then, at least one person will raise their hand and say, “Can’t you just…not litter?” A flood of stories follow on what their parents, their grandparents, their neighbor, their teacher, etc. does on a daily basis to stop all of this from ever happening. Part of Explore Ecology’s mission is to empower. That means giving people hope, ideas, and solutions that act as a catalyst for change in their own lives. And most of the time, this starts with three simple R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Reduce means to make less of, which basically means cut the problem off at the source. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), each person in the U.S. makes an average of 5 pounds of trash a day. If each person were to reduce their trash by a couple of pounds, that would save millions of tons of trash per day. As a consumer, every individual has power over what they buy. Reducing other types of pollution people produce a day can also make a significant difference. Reducing is the first “R” because it is the simplest step. Here are a few, easy ways to reduce:

  • Buy produce that does not come in plastic packaging
  • Buy in bulk: instead of buying the box of 100 chip bags, buy one giant bag of chips and refill reusable containers for snacks each day
  • Didn’t finish your food at a restaurant? Bring your own container and some places will even give you a discount!
  • Buy biodegradable cleaning solutions that are not toxic
  • Bike or walk to work to reduce oils leaking from cars and carbon emissions
  • Bring lunch to work or school to reduce the trash used in cafeterias (and save money)
  • Come up with your own!

As you may have guessed, Reduce and Reuse go hand in hand. If you are reusing, you are automatically reducing by using something over and over instead of throwing it away. Reusing doesn’t have to mean buying all new reusable water bottles or kitchenware; reusing can mean repurposing an old item. For example, a glass jar from sauce can be washed out and reused as a vase for flowers. Here are some ideas that students came up with for reusing random household items:

  • An empty coffee can: drum, paintbrush holder, place for hardware tools, flower pot
  • Mint tin: earring box, portable sewing kit, portable first aid kit, place to store extra cash, tiny pencil case
  • A piece of fabric with a pocket: patch for jeans, pocket for a purse, cover for a journal
  • Ice cube tray: jewelry organizer, vitamin organizer, place for small collections, popsicle maker
  • Old lanyard from a past event: cat or dog toy, belt, necklace, key holder
  • Try to come up with your own!

5Gyres, an organization focused on solutions for marine debris, also came up with a comprehensive list of reusable alternatives to a few of the Dirty Dozen items on page 7 of their BAN List 2.0.

The last “R”, Recycle, is another important step to solving the issue of marine pollution. However, recycling is the last step for a reason. Recycling centers rely on machinery, lots of water, and electricity to be able to sort all of the items that are collected. It’s a great way to further the life of a product and ensure that landfills do not fill up too quickly, but reducing and reusing are simple ways to avoid creating any waste in the first place. When you do recycle, make sure you know what your local recycling center can handle. Here are a few links to direct you to local recycling services:

Individual action is essential to solving this issue. But since marine pollution is a global phenomenon, large companies must be involved in order to make a difference on a macro level. Luckily, manufacturers and industry giants are starting to realize their responsibility in this fight to keep our oceans healthy. In late October 2018, over 300 government and company leaders from all over the world joined together for the Our Ocean Conference in Bali. Each participant made commitments to solving specific “areas of action.” One highlight was big name companies like Coca Cola committing to make their packaging 100% recyclable by 2025. This is a step in the right direction.

If you’d like to know more about marine debris, check out the Watershed Resource Center where Explore Ecology hosts school groups for field trips. On the second Sunday of every month, join us for a Beach Clean Up  from 10:00 am to 12:00 pm at Arroyo Burro Beach where you can help ensure that the Dirty Dozen don’t end up in our oceans!

If you’d like to be more involved with Explore Ecology in general, you can find volunteer opportunities here. Like and follow us on Facebook and Instagram for information about our different programs, upcoming events, and more!





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