Marine Debris

Marine Debris Definition, Examples and Prevention

Plastic Bag Floating in Ocean, Costa Rica
Plastic Bag Floating in Ocean, Costa Rica. mattpaul / RooM / Getty Images

Marine debris is a man-made material in the marine environment (such as in the ocean or on the beach) that doesn't naturally occur there.

The more technical definition, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is:

"any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or the Great Lakes."

Examples Of Marine Debris

Examples of marine debris include beach litter like cigarette butts, plastic bags, and balloons - items commonly found on beach cleanups. It can also include items that wash in from the ocean, such as fishing line, ropes, nets and traps, and items from ships such as items from cruise ships and lost cargo from container ships.

Where Does Marine Debris Come From?

As you could guess from the examples of marine debris listed above, marine debris comes from people. Sources of marine debris include beachgoers and boaters that litter in the marine environment, people littering from cars and garbage blowing out of trash cans and even tiny plastics called microbeads that can escape into the marine environment through our drains and sewer treatment systems.

Marine debris can also include fishing gear that is lost or abandoned at sea, and trash from ships that is accidentally or purposely discarded at sea.


Why Is Marine Debris a Problem?

Marine debris threatens both people and wildlife. On the beach, people can step on debris such as broken glass, and children can put debris like discarded cigarette butts into their mouths. In the water, debris can damage boats and present a safety hazard for divers.

Marine debris threatens wildlife through entanglement and ingestion.

Animals such as whales and sea turtles have died from ingesting items such as plastic bags.

How Long Does Marine Debris Last?

Marine debris also lasts a long time - plastic items may break into smaller pieces, but never fully degrade - thus, they are not biodegradable. Even a seemingly benign litter item like a piece of newspaper can take at least 6 weeks to break down in the marine environment.  A littered soda can? That can take 80-200 years to break down. 

How Can You Prevent Marine Debris?

Marine debris is a big problem, and it is caused by humans.  Every human can be part of the solution.

One easy way to stop the threat of marine debris is to dispose of your waste responsibly. You can also recycle and reuse as many items as possible.

Reducing the purchase of items with lots of packaging can also help, because the less waste we create, the less waste can potentially end up as debris. You can also create less waste by using reusable bottles and travel mugs, packing your lunch in reusable containers, and using reusable plates, cups and utensils rather than disposables.

Stopping the Impacts of Marine Debris

While prevention through waste reduction and proper disposal is the true solution to marine debris, you can also help clean it up before it impacts wildlife and humans.

 You can participate in a beach cleanup such as the International Coastal Cleanup, and help educate others about the problems associated with marine debris and how people can help. 

Marine Debris Used in a Sentence

Volunteers cleaned up thousands of pounds of marine debris, including old tires, straws, and candy wrappers, during the beach cleanup.

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