Citizen Snitches Rat Out Ocean Trash

Clinton Global Initiative promotes novel approaches to cleaning the world’s waterways.

Seven million tons of garbage pollute the marine environment every year. With Global Alert, anyone with a smartphone will be able to report the trashy situation. (Photo: Str Old/Reuters)

Sep 20, 2011· 2 MIN READ
A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

A pair of heavy-hitting confabs are taking place within blocks of each other in Manhattan this week—the seventh annual Clinton Global Initiative and the annual meeting of the United Nation’s General Assembly—and the two are sharing many of the same invited guests.

Given all the additional carbon dioxide being spewed by the attendees’ incoming jets, long lines of idling limousines and the thousands of taxis slowed by resulting traffic jams, it’s a good thing at least the former began with a global call for taking climate change ever more seriously. (President Obama will attend both events, though his focus may be more on making up with Israel and sorting out Libya’s near future than warming temps.)

Felipe Calderón of Mexico said that 26 percent of the energy used in Mexico now comes from renewable resources.

The Clinton Global Initiative event began yesterday with the heads of 50 states present and testimony from a variety of presidents citing their homelands’ successes and goals regarding climate change. Felipe Calderón of Mexico said that 26 percent of the energy used in Mexico now comes from renewable resources (primarily thanks to simple changes like new refrigerators and light bulbs and renewed efforts at reforestation). Jens Stoltenberg, Prime Minister of Norway, was upbeat about the future of emissions trading in part as a way to document who’s contributing how much.

Former President Clinton pointed out that there are real economic gains to be had by investing in clean technologies; the countries that are putting effort into battling climate change, he said, are outperforming the U.S. in jobs, growth, and income-inequality reduction. He asked the audience how the effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions was going in developing countries, and cited Trinidad as the only Caribbean island producing any of its own carbon-based energies, rather than importing everything. He encouraged the gathered flock to help fund alternatives in the sun-stroked region, including solar, hydro and sugar-ethanol. Various proposed carbon tax initiatives got applause from the crowd, but there were also dire warnings about the near future of low-lying countries like the Maldives and Bangladesh. Clinton closed the morning session by saying that while half of the 100 members of the U.S. Senate are still “global warming deniers,” that was an improvement over the 95-0 vote against the Kyoto Protocol adopted by the U.N. in 1997.

Last year’s Clinton Global Initiative event generated $6 billion in commitments to novel fixes and new programs. One that garnered support last year and again this year happens to be potentially very good for the future of the ocean.

Global Alert—a novel effort of citizen participation created by the Ocean Recovery Alliance—targets the 7 million tons of garbage that gets into the marine environment every year. Set to launch in early 2012, the platform will use technology available to any smartphone and existing mapping technologies and give anyone the opportunity to upload “visual snapshots” of trash hotspots. Debris data will be added to customized Google maps, allowing communities to monitor waterways for cleanliness or dirty ways. As scientific data is layered in, the maps will hopefully “empower” community groups and local, national and international agencies to reduce trash in waterways.

According to the Ocean Recovery Alliance, using “citizen reporting” Global Alert’s goals are simple:

  1. Raise awareness about marine debris by connecting communities living “upriver” and those living by the ocean.
  2. Providing a tool to help communities visualize and draw the link between plastic and debris moving from their river to the sea.
  3. Facilitating collaborative management practices between organizations, agencies and the general public.
  4. and inspiring new methods of protection or improvements at every stage of the pollution cycle, from prevention to energy recovery.

The ORA has a second effort—the Plastic Disclosure Project—debuting at this year’s Clinton Global Initiative event. It encourages corporations and other institutions to measure and disclose their “plastic footprint.” “If you measure it, you can manage it,” says Erik Floyd, PDP’s cofounder.