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Marine litter (debris) includes all objects that do not naturally occur in the marine and coastal environment but are nevertheless found there.

Marine litter is the collective term for any man-made object present in the marine and coastal environment.

Marine litter consists of articles that have been made or used by people and, subsequently, deliberately discarded or accidentally lost. In most cases, it is the result of careless handling or disposal of items of solid waste, including containers of liquid waste. However, it can also be material lost at sea in hard weather (fishing gear, cargo).

Marine litter consists of mostly very slowly degradable waste items — items made of persistent materials such as plastic, polystyrene, metals and glass — from a large number of different sources.

Marine litter can blow around, remain floating on the water surface; drift in the water column; get entangled on shallow, tidal bottoms; or sink to the deeper seabed.

Marine litter are items and material that are either discarded directly (thrown or lost directly into the sea); brought indirectly to the sea with rivers, sewage, storm water or winds; or left by people on beaches and shores.


Marine litter is found everywhere, around the world, in the marine and coastal environment.

Marine litter is found floating on the water surface. Almost 90 per cent of floating marine debris is plastic.

Marine litter is found mixed in the water column.

Marine litter is found on the seabed. It could be that as much as 70 per cent of the entire input of marine litter sinks to the bottom and is found on the seabed, both in shallow coastal areas and in much deeper parts of seas and oceans.

Marine litter is found lying on beaches and shores.

The main sea-/ocean-based sources of marine litter
  • Merchant shipping, ferries and cruise liners.
  • Fishing vessels.
  • Military fleets and research vessels.
  • Pleasure craft.
  • Offshore oil and gas platforms.
  • Fish farming installations.

The main land-based sources of marine litter:

  • Municipal landfills (waste dumps) located on the coast.
  • Riverine transport of waste from landfills or other sources along rivers and other inland waterways (canals).
  • Discharge of untreated municipal sewage, including storm water (including occasional overflows).
  • Industrial facilities: Solid waste from landfills, and untreated waste water.
  • Tourism (recreational visitors to the coast; beach-goers).

The main seabased and landbased sources of items that, eventually, will become marine litter.
Primary kinds of direct damage to wildlife caused by marine litter:
  • Entanglement
  • Ingestion

Other threats to wildlife from marine litter:

  • Smothering of the seabed
  • Accumulation and dispersion of toxic substances
  • Environmental changes due to invasive species
  • Disturbance from mechanical beach cleaning

Damage to people, property and livelihood can be grouped into the following general categories:
  • Fishing boats and gear
  • Safety risks for people at sea
  • Damage to cooling water intakes
  • Contamination of beaches
  • Contamination of harbours
  • Health hazards to people
  • Injuries to grazing cattle


Possible measures

Measures to reduce or prevent marine litter are part of a larger issue which concerns each and everyone — that of waste management in society as a whole. People who are waste wise in general, and who realize that waste is a common problem and not one that "someone else" should take care of, will have the same responsible attitude towards the handling of waste that could end up as marine litter.

Merchant ships, offshore platforms, pleasure craft: Efforts should, first of all, be made to reduce the generation of waste onboard ships and platforms. Waste management plans are needed for larger vessels and platforms, and preparations for proper waste management should be made in advance also by those onboard smaller vessels and pleasure craft. Waste should be stored onboard and discharged ashore in a proper reception facility. However, this requires adequate space onboard for storage, and the provision of reception facilities in all commercial harbours and marinas. It also calls for harmonized regional and global regulations to avoid that harbours/marinas are not equipped to take care of the waste and/or that they cause ships undue delay in port. Also, ships should not be deterred from discharging waste to port reception facilities due to high costs, complicated procedures, unnecessary paperwork, excessive sanitary regulations, customs regulations, etc. Furthermore, coastal municipalities must make sure that the waste left in reception facilities is properly taken care of on land, in a manner that is optimal in terms of caring for the environment and human health — the management chain must not be broken.

Fishing vessels: Efforts should be made to reduce the generation of waste onboard, and preparations should be made for storage of waste onboard until one comes ashore. Fishing gear, particularly drift nets, should be marked to make it possible to find them again if they are lost at sea. No fishing gear should ever be deliberately discarded but taken ashore for proper disposal.

Municipal landfills and sewage treatment: Coastal communities/municipalities and those along rivers should make sure that open landfills for household waste as well as industrial waste are eliminated, as part of their overall waste management strategy. Sewage treatment, in adequately equipped facilities, should be a priority for municipalities.

Households: Sewage-related waste should never be flushed down the toilet but treated as any other kind of household waste. And household waste should be sorted and taken proper care of. Again, societal waste management begins at home.

Beach-goers, campers etc.: All beaches and camping grounds should be sufficiently equipped with waste bins to cater for the needs of visitors using these locations. However, people should preferably always take home their own trash and make sure that it is properly sorted and disposed of for maximum recycling. If you are capable of carrying the full containers and bottles with you to the beach, surely you can carry them with you home when they are empty.

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