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What’s in a Name?

November 02 2010 | Legal,
by Angela

Lawyers understand how important words are, as evidenced by the care with which we choose words to characterize our legal battles. Words and labels are also very important for educational outreach purposes. For Surfrider Foundation, every legal issue and litigation endeavor is coupled with a full campaign plan, including an outreach and public education component.

One important and heated debate over semantics centers around the words we choose to characterize the vast amount of trash that ends up in our oceans. The cigarette butts, plastic bags, plastic bottles, polystyrene, etc…that never break down fully when they enter the ocean, and sometimes end up washed back ashore. This material is what comprises the North Pacific Garbage Patch, and what was the impetus for the start of Surfrider Foundation’s Rise Above Plastics program.



The common label used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the West Coast Governors’ Agreement and most governmental bodies is “marine debris”. For instance, the West Coast Governors’ Agreement has an Action Coordination Team (“ACT”) for Marine Debris. Surfrider Foundation sits on this ACT due to our efforts to address plastic pollution in the ocean. Also, NOAA has funded educational outreach materials specifically addressing plastics in the ocean, here: "A Citizen's Guide to Plastic in the Ocean: More than a Litter Problem" - published by the Center for Environmental Education and funded by NOAA and the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI).

Recently, state agencies in California have begun to switch from the use of “marine debris” to more accurately depict the ailment to our oceans as “trash” and “ocean litter”. The California Ocean Protection Council, which was established by the Ocean Protection Act of 2004 signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger, has extensively studied the problem of ocean pollution. After four years of analysis and public input, the OPC released “An Implementation Strategy for the California Ocean Protection Council: Resolution to Reduce and Prevent Ocean Litter” (Available under Ocean Litter Implementation Strategy at http://resources.ca.gov/copc/). The State Water Board of California has also recently proposed a "Trash Policy" for statewide efforts in controlling the trash in the waters of the state. Below, you will find the paragraph submitted in comments by Surfrider Foundation last week (and echoed by the Clean Seas Coalition sign-on letter) that describes the importance of properly defining trash and the pollution problem in our oceans:

Definition of “Trash”. The State Water Board should make clear that the definition of “trash” is intended to mean waste in the form of discarded or littered items, and not organic debris. For instance, the current definition of “trash” as articulated by the State Water Board should not include the word “wood”. One of the most common criticisms of the term “marine debris” is that the word “debris” could mean something found in nature, such as leaves or organic matter turned up after a storm. This is confusing for people who need to understand the problem of ocean litter. Similarly, the inclusion of “wood” in the definition of “trash” could include driftwood and other naturally occurring forms of wood within a definition that should only include waste and post-consumer products, which is the commonly understood definition of “trash”. A piece of naturally occurring driftwood is not “trash” in the sense that it is a major threat to our waterways, and it should not be incumbent upon the localities to regulate this. However, lumber or other manufactured wood products should be included in the definition of trash. Additionally, the definition of trash should include explicit mention of plastics, expanded polystyrene and cigarette butts, which are three of the most commonly found items polluting our waterways.


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