Trash Pollution

Found on beaches and at all depths of the ocean, marine debris consists of all forms of trash, including plastics, paper, wood, metal and other manufactured materials.

Marine debris is 60-80% plastic (Rios et al 2007).

80% of marine debris comes from sources on land (US Department of Commerce 1999).

Approximately 20% of marine debris, or 636,000 tons per year, comes from ocean vessels (US Department of Commerce 1999; Ramirez-Llodra et al. 2011).

Cruises represent only 1% of marine vessels, but produce 25% of ship-sourced waste.

On average, a single cruise passenger produces 3.5 kg of waste per day (Butt 2007).

Top Marine Debris Items Found in Cleanups Over the Last 25 Years  
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Which Goals Does This Affect?

How Was It Measured?

Although studies are available for several areas, global data do not exist for marine trash at sea. 

As a proxy, marine trash is measured as total trash collected (lbs) at International Coastal Clean-up Days for 111 countries according to data from the Ocean Conservancy (2011).  For each Ocean Health Index region, intensity of trash pollution (tons/km) was reported by dividing the total weight of trash collected by the length of coastline cleaned.

What Are The Impacts?

Floating marine debris often accumulates in particular regions because of wind patterns and currents known as gyres. The ocean’s five largest gyres are the North Pacific Gyre, the South Pacific Gyre, the North Atlantic Gyre, the South Atlantic Gyre and the Indian Ocean Gyre. The North Pacific Gyre has received most attention as the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’, but floating trash accumulates in all of the major gyres as well as in many smaller ones worldwide.

Seabirds, turtles, marine mammals and fish can mistake floating trash for food; if ingested, it can choke them or block their digestive systems. Large debris, such as old fishing gear and nets, can kill animals by strangulation or prevent them from performing vital activities such as swimming or diving. Plastic trash smaller than 5mm (microplastic) poses an additional threat because it adsorbs toxic chemicals, including DDT and PCBs, which can cause cancers, weaken the immune system and make animals more susceptible to diseases and other infections.

More than 260 species are known to have ingested or been entangled by plastic debris (STAP 2011).

Of the 120 marine mammal species listed on the IUCN Red List, 54% are known to have ingested or been entangled in plastic debris (STAP 2011).
Ingestion of plastic trash and the consequent uptake of toxins adsorbed on its surface can transfer harmful chemicals through the food web into species eaten by humans; these can include molecules known to increase the risk of birth defects and cancer.

Careless or unlawful disposal of syringes and other medical waste products can spread diseases and pose risks to beach-goers.
Marine debris decreases the economic value and productivity of coastal regions, particularly in the tourism, recreation, and seafood industries, and creates additional costs.

In the United States, 85% of tourism revenue comes from coastal ocean states.

Economic activity directly related to the ocean generated $138 billion in 2004, and contiributed 47 million jobs in 2007 (Dorfman and Rosselot  2010).

What Has Been Done?

Get More Information

United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): Marine Debris Program
Educational and informative source regarding the impact of marine debris.

Plastic Debris / Rivers to Sea: Algalita Marine Research Foundation & the California Coastal Commission
The PDRS Project is dedicated to minimizing land-based sources of marine debris.

Ocean Conservancy: Tracking Trash: 25 Years of Action for the Ocean
A report detailing results of the last 25 years of working toward trash-free oceans

Ocean Conservancy: Trash Free Seas Program
International Coastal Cleanup for collecting and recording marine debris.

Marine Debris Solutions
An organization providing information on the causes of marine debris and potential solutions. 

Save My Oceans
A map of successful Plastic Bag Bans worldwide.

Scientific Advisory Technical Panel (STAP) of the Global Environment Facility 
STAP provides a thorough overview of the plastics pollution problem, including sources, geographic distribution, size distribution, environmental effects and other key information, and provides a conceptual strategy for nations and international bodies to address it in a comprehensive way. 

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PHOTO(S): © Keith A. Ellenbogen
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