Plastic bottles, fishing line, cigarette butts, and other assorted marine debris.

What is Marine Debris?

Our oceans are filled with items that do not belong there. Huge amounts of plastics, metals, rubber, paper, textiles, derelict fishing gear, derelict vessels, and other lost or discarded items enter the marine environment every day. This makes marine debris one of the most widespread pollution problems facing the world's ocean and waterways.

Marine debris is defined as 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. Anything human-made and solid can become marine debris once lost or littered in these aquatic environments. Our trash has been found in every corner of our ocean, from the most remote shorelines, to ice in the Arctic, and even the deepest parts of the sea floor.

Some of the most common and harmful types of marine debris include plastic, such as cigarette butts, plastic bags, and food wrappers, and derelict fishing gear. Marine debris can also range greatly in size from the smallest plastic pieces, called microplastics, that can be too small to be seen with the human eye, to huge abandoned and derelict vessels, construction debris, and household appliances that can damage sensitive habitats. Although some of these items may eventually break down, others are made to last a long time. Once they are in the environment, these items may never fully go away. 

It's most important to remember that marine debris is preventable. This global problem is caused by people, and we can also be the solution. The NOAA Marine Debris Program funds projects across the United States and territories that remove marine debris from shorelines, research the issue to better understand the problem, and prevent it from entering the ocean in the first place. 

You can make a difference too! Learn how you can help take on marine debris, no matter where you are.

How much marine debris is in the ocean and Great Lakes?    

Marine debris is a large and global problem, and it can be very difficult to say how much enters the ocean and Great Lakes. Once marine debris is in the ocean, it can be challenging to understand where it came from, where it goes, or how much is there. 

A study by Borrelle et al. estimated that in 2016, as much as 23 million metric tons of plastic waste entered aquatic ecosystems from land around the world. This number may feel huge, but it’s not the whole picture. It doesn’t include marine debris items not made of plastic, or ocean-based marine debris, such as lost fishing gear and vessels.

If you think about an overflowing sink, the first step before cleaning up the water is to turn the faucet off. By preventing plastic marine debris, we can turn the faucet off and keep this problem from growing. The NOAA Marine Debris Program supports projects that prevent marine debris from ever entering our ocean and waterways through outreach and education efforts that raise awareness of the issue and change behaviors related to common marine debris items. 

There is not a ‘one-size fits all’ solution to the problem, and cleaning up marine debris is also important. The NOAA Marine Debris Program also supports community-based marine debris removal projects across the United States. From local shoreline cleanups to vessel removals, these projects benefit coastal habitats, waterways, and wildlife. Since 2006, the NOAA Marine Debris Program has supported over 160 marine debris removal projects and removed more than 22,500 metric tons of marine debris from our coasts and ocean.

Marine debris is everyone’s problem, and you can be part of the solution. Learn how you can help take on plastic marine debris on our How to Help page.

Last updated Fri, 03/22/2024 - 01:40 pm EDT