For the first time in more than 30 years, food wrappers — many made of plastics — have replaced cigarette butts as the most littered item on the world's beaches and waterways, according to an environmental group that coordinates a prominent cleanup.
The Washington-based group Ocean Conservancy announced Sept. 8 that its global beach cleanup efforts found 4.7 million food wrappers in a single day, topping the 4.2 million cigarette butts found by 940,000 volunteers.
The group said it's the first time in the 34-year history of its International Coastal Cleanup that cigarette butts did not top the list of most frequently littered items along beaches and waterways.
Ocean Conservancy said food wrappers like chip bags and drink pouches dethroning cigarette butts highlights both the growing popularity of such packaging around the world and the "uniquely challenging" environmental problems they pose because multilayer packaging is very difficult to recycle and has few alternatives in commerce.
"In the early days of the [cleanup], volunteers were finding glass bottles, metal cans, paper bags and other items that have increasingly been replaced by plastic alternatives," said Allison Schutes, director of the OC's coastal cleanup efforts. "As a result, more and more food-related plastics are ending up in our environment, where they persist and threaten wildlife indefinitely."
The group pointed to the growth of plastic products in its cleanups, which it's been conducting and documenting annually since 1986. In 2017, it said plastics packaging first made up eight of the 10 top items globally, a trend that continued in the most recent announcement.
In the United States, however, the group's figures did look a little different than what they found globally.
Cigarette butts remained in the top spot within the U.S., with about 900,000 of them picked up, compared with 387,000 flexible food wrappers.
A U.S. top 10 list distributed by the Ocean Conservancy was somewhat less plastics-focused than the global list, with plastics or heavily plastics items like flexible packaging accounting for six of the top 10.
Still, the group said the overall growth of plastics worldwide points up the need for much more research and development around making flexible food wrappers and similar packaging much more environmentally friendly.
"We can recycle plastic bottles, we can bring our own bags to the supermarket, and many of us can even skip the plastic straw altogether; but when it comes to keeping food fresh, safe and accessible, manufacturers have put most of their research and development energy into disposable plastics," said Nick Mallos, senior director of Ocean Conservancy's Trash Free Seas program. "We need food science and packaging experts to accelerate research and development of packaging that isn't destined for landfills and that keeps both people and our ocean safe and healthy."
Globally, plastics dominated the rest of the list. Plastic bottles were No. 3 on the list, with more than 1.8 million found, and plastic bottle caps at No. 4, at 1.5 million.
Other plastic items in the global top 10 included cups and plates, grocery bags, takeout food containers, nongrocery plastic bags and lids.
The list released Sept. 8 actually covers the group's cleanup work in 2019 and was released to highlight work it plans to do in this month for the 2020 cleanup.
Rather than organize major cleanups this year, however, the group is recommending small group or individual efforts to reduce risk from the coronavirus. It said last year it had the most participation in the Philippines, followed by the United States, Hong Kong, Ecuador and Canada.