Marine debris, also known as marine litter, is human-created waste
that has deliberately or accidentally been released in a lake, sea,
ocean or waterway. Floating oceanic debris tends to accumulate at the
center of gyres and on coastlines, frequently washing aground, when
it is known as beach litter or tidewrack. Deliberate disposal of
wastes at sea is called ocean dumping. Naturally occurring debris,
such as driftwood, are also present.
With the increasing use of plastic, human influence has become an
issue as many types of plastics do not biodegrade. Waterborne plastic
poses a serious threat to fish, seabirds, marine reptiles, and marine
mammals, as well as to boats and coasts. Dumping, container
spillages, litter washed into storm drains and waterways and
wind-blown landfill waste all contribute to this problem.
In efforts to prevent and mediate marine debris and pollutants, laws
and policies have been adopted internationally. Depending on relevance
to the issues and various levels of contribution, some countries have
introduced more specified protection policies.
1 Types of debris
1.1 Ghost nets
1.3 Deep-sea debris
2 Sources of debris
3 Great Pacific Garbage Patch
4 Environmental impact
5 Debris removal
5.1 Plastic-to-fuel conversion strategy
6 Laws and treaties
6.1 European law
6.2 United States law
8 See also
10 External links
Types of debris
Debris on beach near Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
Debris collected from beaches on Tern
Island in the French Frigate
Shoals over one month
Researchers classify debris as either land- or ocean-based; in 1991,
United Nations Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of
Pollution estimated that up to 80% of the pollution was
land-based, with the remaining 20% originating from catastrophic
events or maritime sources. More recent studies have found that
more than half of plastic debris found on Korean shores is
ocean-based. A wide variety of anthropogenic artifacts can become
marine debris; plastic bags, balloons, buoys, rope, medical waste,
glass bottles and plastic bottles, cigarette stubs, cigarette
lighters, beverage cans, polystyrene, lost fishing line and nets, and
various wastes from cruise ships and oil rigs are among the items
commonly found to have washed ashore. Six pack rings, in particular,
are considered emblematic of the problem.
The US military used ocean dumping for unused weapons and bombs,
including ordinary bombs, UXO, landmines and chemical weapons from at
least 1919 until 1970. Millions of pounds of ordnance were disposed
of in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coasts of at least 16 states,
New Jersey to
Hawaii (although these, of course, do not wash up
onshore, and the US is not the only country who has practiced
Eighty percent of marine debris is plastic. Plastics accumulate
because they typically do not biodegrade as many other substances do.
They photodegrade on exposure to sunlight, although they do so only
under dry conditions, as water inhibits photolysis. In a 2014
study using computers models, scientists from the group 5 Gyres,
estimate 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic weighing 269,000 tons
dispersed in oceans in similar amount in the Northern and Southern
Hemispheres, and one-hundredth of them in particles in the scale of a
Fishing nets left or lost in the ocean by fishermen – ghost nets –
can entangle fish, dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, dugongs, crocodiles,
seabirds, crabs and other creatures. These nets restrict movement,
causing starvation, laceration and infection, and, in animals that
breathe air, suffocation.
8.8 million metric tons of plastic waste are dumped in the world's
oceans each year. Asia was the leading source of mismanaged plastic
waste, with China alone accounting for 2.4 million metric
Plastic waste has reached all the world's oceans. This plastic
pollution harms an estimated 100,000 sea turtles and marine mammals
and 1,000,000 sea creatures each year. Larger plastics (called
"macroplastics") such as plastic shopping bags can clog the digestive
tracts of these larger animals when consumed by them and can cause
starvation through restricting the movement of food, or by filling the
stomach and tricking the animal into thinking it is full.
Microplastics on the other hand harm smaller marine life. Pelagic
plastic pieces in the center of our ocean’s gyres for example
outnumber live marine plankton, and are passed up the food chain to
reach all marine life. A 1994 study of the seabed using trawl nets
in the North-Western
Mediterranean around the coasts of Spain, France
and Italy reported mean concentrations of debris of 1,935 items per
Plastic debris accounted for 77%, of which 93% was
A handful of nurdles, spilled from a train in Pineville, Louisiana
Nurdles, also known as "mermaids' tears", are plastic pellets,
typically under five millimetres in diameter, that are a major
component of marine debris. They are a raw material in plastics
manufacturing, and enter the natural environment when spilled.
Weathering produces ever smaller pieces. Nurdles strongly resemble
Litter, made from diverse materials that are denser than surface water
(such as glasses, metals and some plastics), have been found to spread
over the floor of seas and open oceans, where it can become entangled
in corals and interfere with other sea-floor life, or even become
buried under sediment, making clean-up extremely difficult, especially
due to the wide area of its dispersal compared to shipwrecks. Research
MBARI found items including plastic bags below 2000m
depth off the west coast of North America and around Hawaii.
Sources of debris
Travel of the Friendly Floatees
Marine debris in Balluta Bay, Malta, after a storm
An estimated 10,000 containers at sea each year are lost by container
ships, usually during storms. One spillage occurred in the Pacific
Ocean in 1992, when thousands of rubber ducks and other toys (now
known as the "Friendly Floatees") went overboard during a storm. The
toys have since been found all over the world, providing a better
understanding of ocean currents. Similar incidents have happened
before, such as when
Hansa Carrier dropped 21 containers (with one
notably containing buoyant Nike shoes). In 2007, MSC Napoli
beached in the English Channel, dropping hundreds of containers, most
of which washed up on the Jurassic Coast, a World Heritage Site.
In Halifax Harbour, Nova Scotia, 52% of items were generated by
recreational use of an urban park, 14% from sewage disposal and only
7% from shipping and fishing activities. Around four fifths of
oceanic debris is from rubbish blown onto the water from landfills,
and urban runoff. In the 1987 Syringe Tide, medical waste washed
New Jersey after having been blown from Fresh Kills
Landfill. On the remote sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia,
fishing-related debris, approximately 80% plastics, are responsible
for the entanglement of large numbers of Antarctic fur seals.
Marine litter is even found on the floor of the Arctic ocean.
Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Main article: Great Pacific Garbage Patch
The currents of the North Pacific
Gyre spiral inwards, depositing
debris in the convergence zone
Ocean currents have created 3 "islands" of debris in the Pacific
Once waterborne, debris becomes mobile. Flotsam can be blown by the
wind, or follow the flow of ocean currents, often ending up in the
middle of oceanic gyres where currents are weakest. The Great Pacific
Garbage Patch is one such example of this, comprising a vast region of
the North Pacific
Ocean rich with anthropogenic wastes. Estimated to
be double the size of Texas, the area contains more than 3 million
tons of plastic. In fact, patches may be large enough to be picked
up by satellites. For example, when the Malaysian Flight MH370,
disappeared in 2014, satellites were scanning the oceans surface for
any sign of it, and instead of finding debris from the plane they came
across floating garbage. The gyre contains approximately six
pounds of plastic for every pound of plankton. The oceans may
contain as much as one hundred million tons of plastic. It is
estimated that each garbage patch in the ocean have up to one million
tons of trash swirling around in them, sometimes extending down to
around one hundred feet below the surface. Some items that have
been extracted from these garbage patches are: a drum of hazardous
chemicals, plastic hangers, tires, cable cords, a ton of tangled
Over 40% of oceans are classified as subtropical gyres, a fourth of
the planets surface area has become an accumulator of floating plastic
Islands situated within gyres frequently have coastlines flooded by
waste that washes ashore; prime examples are Midway and
Hawaii. Clean-up teams around the world patrol beaches to attack
this environmental threat.
More than 37 million pieces of plastic debris have accumulated on
Henderson Island, a remote
Pitcairn island in the South Pacific,
reported to be the highest density of debris reported anywhere in the
world, yet the trash accounts for only 1.98 seconds’ worth of the
annual global production of plastic.
Remains of an albatross containing ingested flotsam
Many animals that live on or in the sea consume flotsam by mistake, as
it often looks similar to their natural prey. Bulky plastic debris
may become permanently lodged in the digestive tracts of these
animals, blocking the passage of food and causing death through
starvation or infection. Tiny floating plastic particles also
resemble zooplankton, which can lead filter feeders to consume them
and cause them to enter the ocean food chain. In samples taken from
the North Pacific
Gyre in 1999 by the Algalita Marine Research
Foundation, the mass of plastic exceeded that of zooplankton by a
factor of six.
A turtle trapped in a ghost net, an abandoned fishing net
Toxic additives used in plastic manufacturing can leach into their
surroundings when exposed to water. Waterborne hydrophobic pollutants
collect and magnify on the surface of plastic debris, thus making
plastic more deadly in the ocean than it would be on land.
Hydrophobic contaminants bioaccumulate in fatty tissues, biomagnifying
up the food chain and pressuring apex predators and humans. Some
plastic additives disrupt the endocrine system when consumed; others
can suppress the immune system or decrease reproductive rates.
The hydrophobic nature of plastic surfaces stimulates rapid formation
of biofilms, which support a wide range of metabolic activities,
and drive succession of other micro- and macro-organisms.
Concern among experts has grown since the 2000s that some organisms
have adapted to live on floating plastic debris, allowing them to
disperse with ocean currents and thus potentially become invasive
species in distant ecosystems. Research in 2014 in the waters
around Australia confirmed a wealth of such colonists, even on
tiny flakes, and also found thriving ocean bacteria eating into the
plastic to form pits and grooves. These researchers showed that
"plastic biodegradation is occurring at the sea surface" through the
action of bacteria, and noted that this is congruent with a new body
of research on such bacteria. Their finding is also congruent with the
other major research undertaken in 2014, which sought to answer
the riddle of the overall lack of build up of floating plastic in the
oceans, despite ongoing high levels of dumping. Plastics were found as
microfibres in core samples drilled from sediments at the bottom of
the deep ocean. The cause of such widespread deep sea deposition has
yet to be determined.
Not all anthropogenic artifacts placed in the oceans are harmful. Iron
and concrete structures typically do little damage to the environment
because they generally sink to the bottom and become immobile, and at
shallow depths they can even provide scaffolding for artificial reefs.
Ships and subway cars have been deliberately sunk for that
Additionally, hermit crabs have been known to use pieces of beach
litter as a shell when they cannot find an actual seashell of the size
Skimmer boat used to remove floating debris and trash from the Potomac
and Anacostia rivers
Techniques for collecting and removing marine (or riverine) debris
include the use of debris skimmer boats (pictured). Devices such as
these can be used where floating debris presents a danger to
navigation. For example, the
US Army Corps of Engineers
US Army Corps of Engineers removes 90
tons of "drifting material" from
San Francisco Bay
San Francisco Bay every month. The
Corps has been doing this work since 1942, when a seaplane carrying
Chester W. Nimitz
Chester W. Nimitz collided with a piece of floating debris and
sank, costing the life of its pilot. Once debris becomes "beach
litter", collection by hand and specialized beach-cleaning machines
are used to gather the debris.
Elsewhere, "trash traps" are installed on small rivers to capture
waterborne debris before it reaches the sea. For example, South
Adelaide operates a number of such traps, known as "trash
racks" or "gross pollutant traps" on the Torrens River, which flows
(during the wet season) into Gulf St Vincent.
In lakes or near the coast, manual removal can also be used. Project
AWARE for example promotes the idea of letting dive clubs clean up
litter, for example as a diving exercise.
On the sea, the removal of artificial debris (i.e. plastics) is still
in its infancy. However some projects have been started which used
ships with nets (Kaisei and New Horizon) to catch some plastics,
primarily for research purposes. Another method to gather artificial
litter has been proposed by Boyan Slat. He suggested using platforms
with arms to gather the debris, situated inside the current of
Another issue is that removing marine debris from our oceans can
potentially cause more harm than good. Cleaning up micro-plastics
could also accidentally take out plankton, which are the main lower
level food group for the marine food chain and over half of the
photosynthesis on earth. One of the most efficient and cost
effective ways to help reduce the amount of plastic entering our
oceans is to not participate in using single use plastics, avoid
plastic bottled drinks such as water bottles, use reusable shopping
bags, and to buy products with reusable packaging.
Once a year there is a diving marine debris removal operation in Scapa
Flow in the Orkneys, run by Ghost Fishing UK, funded by World Animal
Protection and Fat Face Foundation.
Plastic-to-fuel conversion strategy
The Clean Oceans Project (TCOP) promotes conversion of the plastic
waste into valuable liquid fuels, including gasoline, diesel and
kerosene, using plastic-to-fuel conversion technology developed by
Blest Co. Ltd., a Japanese environmental engineering
company. TCOP plans to educate local communities and
create a financial incentive for them to recycle plastic, keep their
shorelines clean, and minimize plastic waste.
Laws and treaties
The ocean is a global common, so negative externalities of marine
debris are not usually experienced by the producer. In the 1950s, the
importance of government intervention with marine pollution protocol
was recognized at the First Conference on the Law of the Sea.
Ocean dumping is controlled by international law, including:
The London Convention (1972) – a
United Nations agreement to control
ocean dumping This Convention on the Prevention of Marine
Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter consisted of twenty
two articles addressing expectations of contracting parties. The
three annexes defined many compounds, substances, and materials that
are unacceptable to deposit into the ocean. Examples of such
matter include: mercury compounds, lead, cyanides, and radioactive
MARPOL 73/78 – a convention designed to minimize pollution of the
seas, including dumping, oil and exhaust pollution The original
MARPOL convention did not consider dumping from ships, but was revised
in 1978 to include restrictions on marine vessels.
UNCLOS- signed in 1982, but effective in 1994, United Nations
Convention on the Law of the
Sea emphasized the importance of
protecting the entire ocean and not only specified coastal
regions. UNCLOS enforced restrictions on pollution, including a
stress on land-based sources. Regulations imposed by this
agreement have potential to help mediate effects of climate
In 1972 and 1974, conventions were held in
Oslo and Paris
respectively, and resulted in the passing of the OSPAR Convention, an
international treaty controlling marine pollution in the north-east
Atlantic Ocean. The
Barcelona Convention protects the
Mediterranean Sea. The
Water Framework Directive of 2000 is a European
Union directive committing EU member states to free inland and coastal
waters from human influence. In the United Kingdom, the Marine and
Coastal Access Act 2009 is designed to "ensure clean healthy, safe,
productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas, by putting in
place better systems for delivering sustainable development of marine
and coastal environment".
A sign above a sewer in Colorado Springs warning people to not pollute
the local stream by dumping. Eighty percent of marine debris reaches
the sea via rivers.
United States law
In the waters of the United States, there have been many observed
consequences of pollution including: hypoxic zones, harmful agal
blooms, and threatened species. In 1972, the United States
Congress passed the
Ocean Dumping Act, giving the Environmental
Protection Agency power to monitor and regulate the dumping of sewage
sludge, industrial waste, radioactive waste and biohazardous materials
into the nation's territorial waters. The Act was amended sixteen
years later to include medical wastes. It is illegal to dispose of
any plastic in US waters.
Property law, admiralty law and the law of the sea may be of relevance
when lost, mislaid, and abandoned property is found at sea. Salvage
law rewards salvors for risking life and property to rescue the
property of another from peril. On land the distinction between
deliberate and accidental loss led to the concept of a "treasure
trove". In the United Kingdom, shipwrecked goods should be reported to
a Receiver of Wreck, and if identifiable, they should be returned to
their rightful owner.
A large number of groups and individuals are active in preventing or
educating about marine debris. For example,
5 Gyres is an organization
aimed at reducing plastics pollution in the oceans, and was one of two
organizations that recently researched the Great Pacific Garbage
Heal the Bay
Heal the Bay is another organization, focusing on protecting
California's Santa Monica Bay, by sponsoring beach cleanup programs
along with other activities.
Marina DeBris is an artist focusing most
of her recent work on educating people about beach trash. Interactive
sites like Adrift demonstrate where marine plastic is carried,
over time, on the worlds ocean currents. On 11 April 2013 in order to
create awareness, artist
Maria Cristina Finucci
Maria Cristina Finucci founded The Garbage
patch state at UNESCO –
Paris in front of Director General Irina
Bokova . First of a series of events under the patronage of
of Italian Ministry of the Environment.
Forty-eight plastics manufacturers from 25 countries, are members of
Plastic Associations for solutions on Marine Litter, have
made the pledge to help prevent marine debris and to encourage
Marine debris is a problem created by all of us, not only those in
Ocean debris can come from as far away as
Nebraska. The places that see the most damage are often not the places
that produce the pollution. For ocean pollution, much of the trash may
come from inland states, where people may never see the ocean and thus
may never put any thought into protecting it. The problem continues to
grow in tandem with plastics usage and disposal. Steps can be taken to
prevent the movement of inland plastics into the oceans.
Plastic debris from inland states come from two main sources: ordinary
litter and materials from open dumps and landfills that blow or
The decomposition times of marine debris
wash away to inland waterways and wastewater outflows. The refuse
finds its way from inland waterways, rivers, streams and lakes to the
ocean. Though ocean and coastal area cleanups are important, it is
crucial to address plastic waste that originates from inland and
At the systems level, there are various ways to reduce the amount of
debris entering our waterways:
Improve waste transportation to and from sites by utilizing closed
container storage and shipping
Restrict open waste facilities near waterways
Promote the use of Refuse-derived fuels. Used plastic with low
residual value often do not get recycled and are more likely to leak
into the ocean. However, turning these unwanted plastics that
would otherwise stay in landfills into refuse-derived fuels allows for
further use; they can be used as supplement fuels at power plants
Improve recovery rates for plastic (in 2012, the United States
generated 11.46 million tons of plastic waste, of which only 6.7% was
Adapt Extended Producer Responsibility strategies to make producers
responsible for product management when products and their packaging
become waste; encourage reusable product design to minimize negative
impacts on the environment
As consumers, there are things we can do to help reduce the amount of
plastic entering our waterways:
7 simple single-use swaps people can make to save trash
Reduce usage of single-use plastics such as plastic bags, straws,
water bottles, utensils and coffee cups by replacing them with
reusable products such as reusable bags, metal straws, reusable water
bottles, bamboo toothbrushes and reusable coffee cups
Avoid microbeads, which are found in face scrubs, toothpastes and body
Participate in a river or lake beach clean up
Support municipality bans and other legislation regulating single-use
plastics and plastic waste
Continue to recycle, recycle, recycle
Though the awareness of inland ocean conservation debris mitigation
seems to be small compared to coastal states, some organizations in
the United States are already working to improve this. The Colorado
Ocean Coalition was formed in 2011 with the goal of impressing upon
inland citizens that they don’t need to see the ocean to care about
its health. It has since grown beyond one state and now forms the
Ocean Coalition, with the mission of promoting knowledge and
awareness of how inland states contribute to pollution of the ocean,
aiming to shatter the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality that
often applies in this region.
“Those who live among mountains, rivers and inland cities have a
direct impact on the cycle of life in the ocean,” reads the IOCO
website. "The changes we need to make to address the largest threats
facing our seas—lowering carbon emissions, reducing trash and
pollution, eating sustainable seafood, safeguarding watersheds,
promoting marine protected areas (MPAs)—can happen from anywhere in
This organization has chapters in many inland US states and promotes
programs like watershed cleanups, youth-centered education, and
decreasing the use of plastic.
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Media related to
Marine debris at Wikimedia Commons
United Nations Environment Programme Marine
UNEP Year Book 2011: Emerging Issues in Our Global Environment Plastic
debris, pages 21–34. ISBN 978-92-807-3101-9.
NOAA Marine Debris Program – US National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Marine Debris Abatement – US Environmental Protection Agency
Marine Research, Education and Restoration – Algalita Marine
UK Marine Conservation Society
Harmful Marine Debris – Australian Government
The trash vortex – Greenpeace
High Seas GhostNet Survey – US National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Social & Economic Costs of Marine Debris – NOAA Economics
Plastic Bits Too Small To See Are Destroying The Oceans, Business
Ghost net remediation program - NASA, NOAA and ATI collaborating to
detect ghost nets
Environmental impact of shipping
Fish diseases and parasites
Marine garbage patches:
Mercury in fish
Nonpoint source pollution
Plastic particle water pollution
Point source pollution
Shutdown of thermohaline circulation
Air quality index
Atmospheric dispersion modeling
Indoor air quality
Atmospheric particulate matter
Environmental impact of pharmaceuticals and personal care products
Environmental impact of shipping
Freshwater environmental quality parameters
Electrical resistance heating
Soil Guideline Values (SGVs)
Actinides in the environment
Bioremediation of radioactive waste
Plutonium in the environment
Radium in the environment
Uranium in the environment
Other types of pollution
Pollution from nanomaterials
Radio spectrum pollution
Urban heat island
Basel Action Network
Pollution Control Board (India)
Environment Agency (England and Wales)
Scottish Environment Protection Agency
European Environment Agency
Biosolids, waste and waste management
Municipal solid waste
Garden waste dumping
Mechanical biological treatment
Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future
Extended producer responsibility
High-level radioactive waste management
History of waste management
Sewage regulation and administration