International Coastal Cleanup Report Reveals Staggering Reality of Recycling Crisis

Sixty-nine percent of items collected over the past 35 years of cleanups are not recyclable.

Mauritius litter

Courtney Jenkins

This week, as the 2021 International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) season gets underway, Ocean Conservancy released the results of last year’s efforts to remove litter from the world’s waterways and record the results. 

But the new report is a little different from past iterations. In addition to its annual top ten list of the year’s most littered items, the organization also looked back at 35 years of cleanups to reveal a recyclability crisis. 

“[W]hen we look at the last 35 years of data analyses that are presented in the report, the highlight is that the majority of those items that have been collected over those years—nearly 70%—are effectively unrecyclable,” Nick Mallos, senior director of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas® Program, tells Treehugger. 

35 Years of Data

The world’s first ICC took place in 1986, and since then more than 16.5 million volunteers around the world have collected and recorded 357,102,419 items, or more than 344 million pounds of litter. In many ways, the information provided by these cleanups is just as important as their environmental benefit. The Ocean Conservancy now has access to the world’s largest database on marine litter. 

“We have three decades and more of information,” Mallos says. “We felt the time was right to really take a look at the information beyond just the top 10 and really think about, ‘What can it tell us about our consumptive behavior?’”

Part of the story it tells us is the steady rise of plastic pollution. Since 1986, ICC volunteers have collected enough plastic bottles to stretch from Moscow to Lisbon and enough plastic straws and stirrers to run the length of the Himalayas. In most years since 2017, the top ten most littered items have all been plastic. 

However, the data also reveals that the problem is much larger than individual habits. Instead, Mallos says, it begs the question, “How we are collecting and recycling, or in many ways not recycling, plastic waste.” 

Top Ten Items Recorded


Beyond Individual Consumers 

The 35 years of ICC data reveal that 69% of items collected in the U.S. are not recyclable, and almost half of these items are food and beverage related. However, consumers are understandably confused about what can and can’t be recycled. A recent John Oliver segment on plastics, for example, detailed how most municipalities can only recycle numbers one and two that appear within the iconic “chasing arrows” symbols on the backs of plastic packaging, leaving numbers three to seven in the dust. But consumers tend to trust these arrows. 

“We know based on the surveys we did that a majority of Americans look to that symbol to indicate whether or not they can or cannot recycle something. And so if that symbol doesn’t actually hold meaning, it is misleading,” Mallos says. 

An Ocean Conservancy survey conducted this summer, for example, found that six in 10 U.S. residents were wrong about the recyclability of plastic food delivery containers. 

This emphasis on recyclability reflects a shift in the anti-plastic-pollution movement from focusing on individual items and choices to addressing structural problems and solutions. 

“It is fine to say consumers have a role, yes we do have a role,” Mallos says, “But we also have to be realistic about the role that industry has in terms of the products that they are making.” 

Florida cleanup


Mallos offered three solutions to the recyclability problem:

  1. Expand legislation like California’s recently passed “chasing arrows” bill. This bill, Senate Bill 343, prohibits a company from using the symbol or otherwise claiming something is recyclable when state municipalities cannot process it. 
  2. Phase out and replace truly non-recyclable items like plastic bags or expanded polystyrene foam food or beverage containers.
  3. Create demand for truly recyclable materials that can be collected and reused as part of a circular economy. One way to do this is by passing laws requiring a certain percentage of recycled content in plastic products. 

An Abnormal Year 

In addition to looking back at the entire history of ICC data, the latest report also addresses 2020 in particular. 

“2020 was an abnormal year in every way,” Mallos says. 

For one thing, the pandemic meant that it was not safe to conduct cleanups on the usual scale. While more than one million volunteers participated in 2018 and 943,195 in 2019, that number fell to 221,589 in 2020. 

At the same time, the pandemic saw the rise of more and different types of waste.

“Packaging waste from food takeaway and delivery rose as people sought to support local restaurants,” Ocean Conservancy CEO Janis Searles Jones wrote in the introduction to the most recent report. “The sudden necessity of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), including masks and gloves, meant that we had to contend with a new type of everyday plastic on our beaches and in our neighborhoods.” 

In 2020, volunteers collected 107,219 pieces of PPE. While that wasn’t enough to bring the category into the top 10, it was close. Further, number four on the 2020 top 10 list was “other trash.” The report authors noted that PPE was likely logged here before a separate category was created. 

“Those two data points together just tell the story that PPE was a prevalent form of plastic pollution this past summer,” Mallos says.

Indeed, the Ocean Conservancy had already released data from the last six months of 2020, revealing the striking amount of PPE collected by volunteers, as Treehugger reported at the time. The new form of litter is also already harming animals, another study published around the same time revealed, trapping them, entangling them, or tricking them into eating a plastic meal.

Mallos says PPE is an example of a “necessary plastic.” Everyone should follow mask mandates, and reusable masks are not always considered appropriate or effective. Instead, this new type of litter is an example of the need for better collection systems. 

Ocean Conservancy will continue to monitor PPE and other types of litter as the 2021 ICC kicks off with its flagship event this coming Saturday, September 18. Mallos says he is excited to welcome volunteers to the event now that restrictions are loosening, but, if you’re busy on Saturday, cleanup events will continue throughout the month. To sign up for a cleanup, you can go to 

“Join in to create a very real impact for your local community, your local beach, and our global ocean,” Mallos says. 

View Article Sources
  1. "We Clean On." Ocean Conservancy, 2021.

  2. "Together We Are Team Ocean." Ocean Conservancy, 2020.

  3. Hiemstra, Auke-Florian, et al. "The Effects of COVID-19 Litter on Animal Life." Animal Biology, 2021, pp. 1-17., doi:10.1163/15707563-bja10052