Marine Litter: A Drifting Concern

By Rita Waimer


The oceans, lakes and seas of the world are many things: a home to varied marine life, a vacation spot, a source of income, and much more. They’re also full of trash.

Anywhere you find humans (and even in some places you don’t) you’ll likely find litter. Our waterways are no different — everything from old clothing and plastic bags to cigarette butts and glass bottles can be found floating in water or washing up on beaches. The majority of these items are made from plastic, and in 2015 a team of researchers estimated that 18.5 billion pounds of land-based plastic waste entered our oceans.

Global Impact

Plastic is the most dangerous type of marine litter, and it poses three distinct threats. First, many animals will mistake plastic for food. A sea turtle, for example, might think a plastic grocery bag is a jellyfish. Once ingested, the plastic can make the animal choke, irreparably damage the digestive system, or even give a false sense of being full that leads to starvation.

Second, plastic may carry an invasive species to a new ecosystem. While this type of transfer happened for millions of years with driftwood and ash, plastic remains intact for longer periods of time and is easy to cling to, making it possible for species to travel greater distances. A 2002 study showed that marine debris more than doubled the opportunities for species to reach 30 remote islands around the world.

And third, animals can become tangled in plastic and other types of litter, hampering their ability to move, eat or breathe. Such is the case with plastic rings that hold six-packs of cans or bottles together, as well as fishing lines and nets that can trap and kill everything from small fish to large whales.

It’s not just animals who suffer from all this litter — humans pay a steep price for it, too. Most obviously, it can have huge effects on the tourism industry. Nobody wants to sit on a dirty beach, so beachfront communities have to continually combat litter. But it’s expensive: the cost for just 90 California communities to keep their shorelines clean comes to more than $520 million a year.

In harbors and marinas, floating trash can get tangled in propellers and anchors or clog intake pipes, all leading to costly repairs. For commercial fishermen, time spent removing debris from lines and nets is time spent without a catch. For communities in general, polluted waterways threaten sources of drinking water. And don’t forget, fish and crustaceans are popular and important food sources. If the tuna on your plate was eating plastic, so are you.

Multiple frameworks are in place — including national and regional legislation, international agreements, and various action plans — to regulate land- and marine-based litter. They’re difficult to enforce, however, and the litter is hard to combat precisely because it’s in the water, where it can quickly be carried great distances.

Successfully combating marine litter will take a global effort, and that can start with examining our own habits of using and disposing of plastic products.