Marine Debris

GYRE Expedition: Hallo Bay Clean Up, SW Alaska

Marine debris comes from everyone and every source that makes every kind of garbage.

Tons of trash from both land – up to 80 percent — and ships constantly finds its way to the sea.  Much of this marine debris does not go away; it cannot dissolve and it lasts in the oceans for many years.

The most ubiquitous debris is plastics of all kinds.  Bottles, bags, containers, disposable plastic lighters, toys, pens, plastic cups, utensils, toothbrushes—more than you can name.  In some places, plastic bags make up half of all the marine debris.  Add to this miles and miles of discarded fishing line and nets.

If marine debris were only unsightly yet harmless, it wouldn’t be such an urgent issue.  But every hour of every day, marine debris kills sea birds, whales, fish, dolphins, seals, turtles and manatees that become entangled and often strangled, or mistake the debris for food.  Discarded fish nets can drift ghostlike for miles, snaring and killing sea life along the way.

People are also directly affected.  Tourists won’t want to visit littered beaches or swim in a slick of trash while beach cleaning costs millions of dollars for US coastal states every year.

Marine debris is now nearly everywhere.  It is on the coasts, in the water column, on the water’s surface, and on the seabed.  Some places have much more debris than others.

Much of the trash is swirling in one of the five large systems of rotating ocean currents called gyres, where each piece of plastic will remain for many years.  Meanwhile, the amount of long-term trash is constantly increasing.

Individuals can help by ensuring proper disposal of wastes including nets and fishing line, avoiding plastics whenever possible, and supporting improved and strict municipal and residential waste management practices on land.

But ultimately, engineers will have to invent ways to manufacture plastic that will truly degrade in sunlight and seawater without negative effects.

3 things you can do to lessen marine debris:

1. Limit your use of plastics–bags, bottles, disposable items, etc.
2. Don’t throw fishing line and tackle into the water or onto the beach. Discard properly.
3. Support local efforts to ensure responsible, land-based solid waste management.

Other great ways you can make a difference.


Carl Safina is Lead Scientist on Alaskan Gyre Expediton
Marine Debris Fact Sheet
Marine Debris – NOAA
Plastic Debris in the Oceans – UN Environmental Program

What is the Problem – 5 Gyres

Marine Debris from Japan – Huffington Post

Cleaning Up – New Zealand

Art and Marine Debris – Coastal America

Marine Debris – WWF Video

Sources of Marine Debris – EPA
Marine Debris as a Global Environmental Problem, UNEP