Plastic items are the most common type of marine debris in our ocean, waterways, and Great Lakes. Plastic is used to create items that are part of our everyday lives, including toys, food storage, and even medical supplies. Plastic marine debris can also include larger items, such as lost or discarded fishing gear or large sheets of plastic used in agriculture.

Plastic can enter the marine environment in a variety of ways, including limited resources for disposing of trash, improper trash collection, littering, or through stormwater runoff. Once in the environment, plastics don’t break down the way natural materials do and may never fully go away, which is why preventing these items from entering our waters in the first place is especially important.

What is plastic?

Plastic is a material that comes from synthetic or human-made organic compounds containing carbon, often made with petroleum, and can come in many shapes, sizes, and colors. It is a flexible, lightweight, and inexpensive material that is used in products from food and beverage packaging and food ware, to electronics, construction materials, medical supplies, fishing gear, and clothing. However, the same things that make plastic so useful, can also be a problem for our ocean, waterways, and Great Lakes.

Why is plastic marine debris a problem? 

Plastic is durable and designed to last for a long time. This can be really useful and serve important purposes, such as for medical devices that keep many people safe and healthy. However, the durability of plastic is also one of the traits that makes it so damaging as marine debris. 

Plastic doesn’t degrade or break down like other materials do. Instead, as plastic is exposed to the sun, salt water, and movement from waves, it can fragment and break up into smaller and smaller pieces, called microplastics. Because of their small size, these tiny plastic pieces are extremely difficult to remove, and may never fully go away. 

Plastic marine debris is also a problem because of how common this material is in our lives. If you look around you, chances are you’ll notice plastic in the items around you, from your clothing or jewelry, to the glasses you’re reading with, the pen you’re writing with, or the materials keeping your lunch fresh. Unfortunately, many plastics are single-use items and are specifically designed to be used only once before being thrown away or recycled. During the Ocean Conservancy’s 2018 International Coastal Cleanup, all ten of the top items found around the world were single-use plastic items, including cigarette butts, food wrappers, straws, single-use cutlery, beverage bottles, bottle caps, grocery bags and other plastic bags, lids, and cups and plates.

Are biodegradable or compostable plastics better for the environment?

Plastics labeled as “bio-based” or “biodegradable” that may break down in industrial composting facilities, are not designed to quickly break down in household compost piles, soil, or in marine environments. Plastics of all types, even those labelled as biodegradable or compostable, could stay in the ocean and Great Lakes for an indefinite amount of time

Is plastic marine debris a problem in the United States? 

Although marine debris is a global problem, it can also be found at home in the United States. 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. The study also found that the United States was the third largest contributor to mismanaged plastic waste through littering, illegal dumping, and exporting to other countries where waste is not properly disposed of. In 2016, as much as 1.45 million metric tons of plastic debris is estimated to have entered the coastal environment from the United States. 

How much plastic is in the ocean, and how do we clean it up?

We know our trash is causing a problem in our ocean, waterways, and Great Lakes, but how much plastic is out there? The ocean is a huge place, with deep canyons and remote shorelines that are extremely difficult to reach. Once plastic is in the ocean, it can be extremely difficult to understand where it comes from, or how much there is out 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. Because plastic doesn’t break down the way natural materials do, this 23 million metric tons of plastic can continue to fragment into smaller and smaller pieces, and can be even more difficult to locate and clean up. 

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 from entering the ocean, waterways, and Great Lakes in the first place, 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, waterways, and Great Lakes 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 plastic marine debris is 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 help be part of the solution. Learn how you can help take on plastic marine debris on our How to Help page.

Last updated Tue, 02/07/2023 - 07:45 am EST