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DIMENSIONS OF THE CHALLENGE AND U.S. PROGRESS 13 1 Dimensions of the Challenge and U.S. Progress Human use of the oceans is extensive and varied, and one of the by- products is shipborne garbage. For centuries, as most land-generated waste was discarded in open dumps, vessel-generated garbage was discharged overboard. To do otherwise was to transport unnecessary weight and to invite the ever- present vermin to prosper. When population density was low and waste consisted primarily of food items and inert inorganic materials (i.e., metal, glass, or china), the land and sea environments were used freely as convenient dumps without apparent damage. Indeed, until recent years it Was assumed that discharging garbage into the marine environment was not harmful, because the oceans were so vast that their capacity to absorb waste was infinite. Discarding waste in the ocean was seen as complementary to disposal on land (Goldberg, 1976), and many coastal communities legally barged garbage to sea for disposal. Most food wastes and garbage thrown overboard disappeared without a trace, but mariners long have observed that such debris sometimes floats on the surface of the sea or washes up on beaches. Some of these fragments are deposited on the shoreline and near-coastal zone by wind and wave action. The long-held assumption that such debris was benign began to change in the 1970s, as scientists documented the accumulation of garbage in the sea and the resulting harm to the marine environment. Part of the problem was the changing composition of garbage, which increasingly contained durable, synthetic materials such as plastic packaging, cargo nets, packing straps, and synthetic- fibre fishing lines and nets (Recht, 1988; Alig et al., 1990). Even in the most remote locations, observers tallied accumulations of debris that could have come only from maritime sources (Amos, 1993; Ryan and Moloney, 1993). Such evidence, along with the resulting
DIMENSIONS OF THE CHALLENGE AND U.S. PROGRESS 14 Scenes like this drew public attention to the marine debris problem and stimulated efforts to control disposal of vessel garbage. Credit: John Miller, National Park Service. harm to wildlife (Marine Mammal Commission, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993) as well as beach closings, eventually provided the basis for international and U.S. action to restrict overboard disposal of garbage. Apart from the environmental harm attributed to garbage discarded from vessels, numerous accounts have reported direct damage to human activities (O'Hara and Debenham, 1989; O'Hara and Younger, 1990; Debenham and Younger, 1991; Younger and Hodge, 1992; Hodge and Glen, 1993) and described the loss of the aesthetic and recreational value of beaches accumulating substantial amounts of debris (Roehl and Ditton, 1993). As a result, oceanfront