Pastic debris and trash mixed in with natural debris along a river shoreline.

Where Does Marine Debris Come From?

Marine debris is a worldwide issue that affects everyone, no matter where they live. It comes from people and can enter our waterways, ocean, and Great Lakes in many ways from activities on land and at sea. Marine debris is identified as land-based, ocean-based, or disaster debris, depending on its source. Land-based marine debris comes from human activities that take place on land, while ocean-based marine debris comes from trash, fishing gear, and other items lost off of vessels or platforms at sea. When a storm, natural disaster, or accident at sea creates large amounts of marine debris, this is called disaster debris, and can include abandoned vessels or pieces of buildings.

Our trash travels. Whether it is properly thrown away or dumped on purpose, it can find its way into our ocean and Great Lakes. This could happen at the beach, while boating on the water, or even many miles inland where trash can be blown and swept into waterways. Wherever trash comes from, it can eventually make its way into the ocean and Great Lakes and cause a lot of problems. 

Marine debris comes from people, but we can also be the solution. No matter where marine debris comes from, we all have the power to prevent it! 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 the ocean and waterways 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 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. 

Who is responsible for creating marine debris?

Marine debris is a global problem, and can come from countries around the world, including the United States. Once marine debris is in the ocean or Great Lakes, it can be difficult to tell where exactly it comes from.

Managing trash is a challenging problem. The systems for managing waste can be different between cities, states, and countries, and these systems can potentially create marine debris when trash is not properly collected. It will take a coordinated global effort of many stakeholders working together to effectively address marine debris. Successful change will require participation from local and national governments, private industry, educational and research institutions, and international and regional organizations. There are many ongoing international initiatives to understand and combat the issue of marine debris. The NOAA Marine Debris Program strives to provide constructive input into these efforts. 

The United States contributes to the problem, along with other countries around the world. It is important to note that while some places may generate more marine debris than others, all marine debris comes from people and often from material that is either littered or not disposed of properly. This mismanaged waste can enter the ocean via inland waterways, wastewater outflows, and transport by wind or tides.

A study by Law et al. has revealed the United States is responsible for a larger portion of plastic waste entering the marine environment than previously thought. The study showed that in 2016, the United States was the largest producer of plastic waste worldwide, creating 42 million metric tons of plastic waste. During this year, the United States was the third largest contributor to mismanaged plastic waste with as much as 1.45 million metric tons of plastic debris estimated to have entered the coastal environment from the United States. 

The NOAA Marine Debris Program is partnering with the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) to better understand how the United States contributes to plastic marine debris. The study will evaluate the types of marine debris coming from the United States, where it comes from, the amount of marine debris in our domestic waterways, and the export and import of plastic waste to and from the United States, among other questions.

Last updated Thu, 03/21/2024 - 12:10 pm EDT