Marine Rubbish Removal: Why the Specific Terminology We Use Matters

Eskimos have dozens of different words for snow. In fact, Franz Boas, the famous German American anthropologist, claimed that the Eskimo languages, Inuit and Yupik dialects, had at least fifty words for snow! Likewise, mariners have many different words for rubbish removal found in the sea! Further, oceanic rubbish removal is often referred to by marine biologists and oceanographers as “marine debris,” or less often as “marine litter.”

rubbish removal
The two most common words for marine rubbish removal are jetsam and flotsam, although there are more esoteric terms used to make finer distinctions such as ligan and derelict. The various terms for marine rubbish removal are often confused and interchanged incorrectly. However, under international maritime law, the difference between jetsam and flotsam are actually quite important. In fact, the outcome of lawsuits and profit from high stakes adventures often hinge on the difference.

Jetsam is the word for rubbish removal items at sea that are deliberately jettisoned off a ship (thrown overboard). On the other hand, flotsam refers to marine rubbish removal that was NOT deliberately thrown overboard. The ownership of jetsam belongs to anyone who retrieves it, whereas the ownership of flotsam remains with the original owner, even when the items are lost at sea.

While these distinctions in terminology were quite important historically, mostly for salvage purposes in an unforgiving, often hostile, sea, today there is often more emphasis on tracking down the original source of marine debris for the purpose of taking measures to reduce it. Unfortunately, however, it can be difficult to tell if rubbish removal at sea was intentional or not. For example, abandoned or discarded fishing gear that kills thousands of marine mammals, turtles, birds, and fish, is sometimes intentionally discarded, but when caught, a vessel captain may claim it was unintentional.

Whatever the distinctions between the terms “jetsam” and “flotsam,” given the antiquity of the terms (long before rubbish in the sea was a recognized problem), and their usage in books and movies, the terms have an almost romantic nostalgic feel. As a result, when these terms are used, few people are eager to prosecute, or otherwise hold accountable, the fishermen, cruise ships, cargo ships, and others that allow our seas to be filled with rubbish removal!

If you are trying to garner more public support for holding these profitable entities accountable for their maritime rubbish removal, it is far more effective to use terms like:

– ocean plastic garbage
– ocean dumping
– marine pollution
– marine garbage dump
– Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch
– human ocean debris
– human ocean rubbish
– human generated waste removal at sea
– trash at sea
– rubbish at sea
– garbage at sea

These types of terms conjure up feelings of holding those responsible accountable, at least in eco-conscious individuals. You’ve probably heard people say, “Don’t get caught up in semantics!” Well, as a sustainability writer, I’ll tell you that word selection truly matters in how people perceive an issue. This is why writers sometimes spend hours “wordsmithing” a single paragraph, even a single sentence! Not a good time to get paid by the word, but I digress!

Anthropologists and linguists know this too. There’s a term they sometimes use called, “linguistic relativity,” also known as Whorfianism, named after the person who first conceived of this important concept. The basic idea of linguistic relativity is that language structure and the subtle shades of differences between words with similar meaning can actually influence the way people think about a subject and the decisions they make.

With linguistic relativity in mind, think about how the various terms we have for marine rubbish removal can influence how we view that rubbish. Take for example the use of the term “marine litter” versus “marine debris.” The term “marine litter” is more provocative than “marine debris.” It gives more of a sense of intentional and illegal discarding of rubbish removal in our oceans. Unfortunately, “marine debris” could conjure up an image of rubbish that is more natural, like the natural and healthy “detritus” found on the forest floor.

Word choice matters! The subtle differences in words frame the issue!

For those of us who are eco-activists and highly motivated to reduce the rubbish removal found in our oceans, perhaps we should “invent” new words and phrases that would be more impactful for our purposes! For example, as a play on the term “landfill,” maybe we could refer to marine litter as “oceanfill.” Or… how about the phrase, “illegal ocean dump?”

For those of you who love to play with words, please use these ideas as a springboard to create your own oceanic rubbish removal terms that might frame the problem better and have more impact! When you come up with some good ones, please post them to the Clearabee Facebook page so they can be circulated more widely. Clearabee is an on demand rubbish removal company in the UK.

Daniel Long sits at the helm of Clearabee, a company widely recognized for their ecoconscious practices. Since its inception, Daniel has made as a priority diverting as much rubbish removal from landfills as humanly possible. With Clearabee’s steadfast push for this goal, they have achieved an amazing NINETY percent recycle and reuse rate! This is why customers of Clearabee often brag being their customer!

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