Land-based Marine Debris

A trash and recycling can overflowing with single-use food containers at an outdoor event.
When trash is disposed of in overflowing trash cans, it can be blown into nearby waterways (Photo: NOAA).

Where Does Marine Debris Come From?

Marine debris is a global issue and can come from many different places and activities. Learn about the different sources of marine debris.
Ocean-based Marine Debris

Learn about marine debris that comes from people at sea.

Disaster Debris

Learn how natural disasters and accidents can create marine debris.

 

Most marine debris comes from human activities on land, and eventually enters the ocean and Great Lakes. This land-based marine debris can come from littering everyday trash, whether on purpose or accident, and dumping items in rivers, streams, and the ocean and Great Lakes. Trash can be carried into the marine environment through storm water that flows into streams, rivers, and eventually the ocean and Great Lakes. Each community has different options for waste disposal and sometimes there may be limited resources for effectively disposing of and collecting trash. 

What are some examples of land-based marine debris?

Land-based debris can include trash, such as plastic bags, glass and plastic bottles, straws, cigarette butts, bottle caps, food containers and utensils, and many other things. It can be items people leave behind at the beach, or it may be items that are not properly disposed of that eventually flow into the ocean.

Although these are common types of debris to come from activities on land, it’s also possible that they could come from human activities taking place out in the ocean, or be brought to the ocean during a disaster

How does marine debris travel from land to the ocean and Great Lakes?

Many assume that marine debris only comes from the littering or illegal dumping of large items such as couches and appliances, but there are many other ways debris ends up in the ocean. Trash created on land can be blown, swept, or washed out to sea, whether it is properly disposed of or not. In some communities where options for collecting and disposing of trash are limited or not available, large amounts of marine debris can enter the environment due to  dumping or a lack of waste management options.    

Marine debris can also come from industrial sources on land, such as accidental spills of plastic pellets that are used to create larger plastic items.

It can also result from simple actions, like washing and wearing your clothing. Our clothes are often made from synthetic materials that shed microfibers, releasing them in the wash or directly into the water and air around us during normal wear. 

Storm water that flows along streets or along the ground as a result of rain or snow can carry street litter and other debris into storm drains. Wind and rain can blow waste out of trash cans and move street litter. This trash can end up in lakes, rivers, and the ocean if not removed from waterways. 

There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to marine debris, and communities around the country are affected by marine debris in different ways. Marine debris comes from people, but we can also be the solution. A good rule of thumb is to remember the 4 Rs: Refuse, Reuse, Reduce, Recycle. No matter where marine debris comes from, we all have the power to prevent it! Learn how you can help take on plastic marine debris on our How to Help page.