Marine Debris and Pollution Don’t Belong in Our Oceans

Marine litter is human-created waste that has been discharged into the coastal or marine environment. Specifically: “Marine debris” is defined to include any anthropogenic, manufactured, or processed solid material (regardless of size) discarded, disposed of, or abandoned in the environment, including all materials discarded into the sea, on the shore, or brought indirectly to the sea by rivers, sewage, storm water, waves, or winds.”

We stand with scientists and policy makers who have found that effective marine debris solutions require actions to improve litter prevention, recycling, and other waste management infrastructure, along with strong regional and international partnerships.

The Impact of Marine Debris

Marine litter is not only ugly – it can harm ocean ecosystems, wildlife, and humans. It can injure coral reefs and bottom-dwelling species and entangle or drown ocean wildlife. Some marine animals ingest smaller plastic particles and choke or starve. Medical waste (such as syringes), sharp objects, and large pieces of litter can pose a direct threat to humans. The economic impact of marine litter is thought to be significant.

Types of Marine Debris and Litter

There are many types of marine litter. Roughly 70 percent of marine litter, such as glass, metal, and all sorts of marine equipment and other refuse, sinks to the ocean floor, according to UNEP.

While marine litter consists of all sorts of materials, many plastics float or remain suspended in water, making them more visible. And many also are resistant to degradation and persist in the marine environment.

The Top Ten Marine Debris Items

Debris Items Number of Items Percent of Total

Cigarettes/cigarette filters

25,407,457 24.6%
Bags (paper & plastic debris) 9,711,238 9.4%
Caps/lids 9,398,977 9.1%
Food wrappers/containers 9,191,575 8.9%
Cups/plates/forks/knives/spoons 7,426,964 7.2%
Beverage bottles (plastic) <2 litres 5,684,718 5.5%
Beverage Bottles (glass) 4,991,860 4.8%
Beverage cans 4,796,554 4.6%
Straws, stirrers 4,508,085 4.4%
Rope 2,215,329 2.1%
Total debris items 103,247,609 80.7%

Adapted from UNEP (2009a) and compiled from the International Coastal Clean Ups’ 1989-2007 reports of the Center for Marine Conservation/Ocean Conservancy.

The Goal: Less Plastic in the Ocean

We know that plastics are essential to modern life. Plastics can enhance quality of life in ways that other materials cannot. Plastics can help prolong the freshness of food. They can help shield and transport sterilized medical supplies. They can meet resource needs and reduce waste, energy use, and emissions. And much more.

We can responsibly enjoy the benefits of plastics while also properly disposing or recycling used plastics. (The same goes for all types of materials that make up marine litter.)

A recent study found that the amount of plastic waste entering the ocean from land each year exceeds 4.8 million tons (Mt), and may be as high as 12.7 Mt  The quantities of plastic entering the ocean are growing rapidly with the potential for cumulative inputs of plastic waste into the ocean as high as 250 Mt by 2025.

Discharges of plastic are spread around the globe from the 192 countries with coastal borders, but 20 countries account for 83% of the mismanaged plastic waste available to enter the ocean.

Of course, better marine litter prevention and ocean conservancy begins with a better understanding of the root causes of ocean pollution.

What Causes Marine Litter?