What is marine debris?
Even though marine debris enters the ocean in one place, it can wash up on shores miles and miles away. So, how does marine debris move around the ocean and where does it go?
Wind, gyres, currents and oceanic features, such as shorelines and eddies, all determine how and where marine debris moves. It is continuously mixed and moved by wind and wave action and widely dispersed both over huge ocean surface areas and throughout the water column.
Marine debris may end up nearby or far offshore, carried by oceanic currents and pushed by winds. Conditions, such as El Niño, and seasonal weather also affect how marine debris moves in the ocean.
Marine debris can also be trapped by gyres in areas called debris accumulation zones, or “garbage patches.” The size of these patches constantly shifts with currents and winds. Sometimes, it can seem as if there is little to no debris, However, the debris is often highly dispersed and includes a large percentage of hard-to-see microplastics in these areas.
Since debris can be carried far from its origin, it is often hard to figure out exactly where a specific item came from.
Marine debris is everyone’s problem. It affects everything from the environment to the economy; from fishing and navigation to human health and safety; from the tiniest coral polyps to giant blue whales.
Marine debris is an eyesore along shorelines around the world. It degrades the beauty of the coastal environment and, in many cases, may cause economic loss if an area is a popular tourist destination. Would you want to swim at a beach littered in trash? Coastal communities may not have the resources to continually clean up debris that wash up on its shores.
Marine debris can scour, break, smother and otherwise damage important marine habitats, such as coral reefs. Many of these habitats serve as the basis of marine ecosystems and are critical to the survival of many other species.
Wildlife entanglement and ghostfishing
Ghostfishing is what happens when lost or abandoned fishing gear continues to trap animals, entangle and potentially kill marine life, smother habitat, and act as a hazard to navigation. This gear, as well as packing and rubber bands, balloon strings, six-pack rings, and a variety of other marine debris, can lead to injury, illness, suffocation, starvation and even death.
Sea turtles, seabirds, marine mammals and other animals have been known to mistake marine debris for food, or eat it accidently with real food. This can lead to loss of nutrition, internal injury, intestinal blockage and starvation.
Vessel damage and navigation hazards
Some marine debris can be large and difficult to see if it's floating below the ocean surface. Encounters with marine debris at sea can result in injury or costly vessel damage, either to the structure or through a tangled propeller or clogged intake.
Alien species transport
If a marine organism attaches to debris, it can travel hundreds of miles and arrive in an area where it normally shouldn’t be found. These so-called “invasive species” can have devastating effects on fisheries and local ecosystems and can be costly to eradicate.
NOAA’s Marine Debris Program is leading the way in finding solutions to marine debris and has developed a strategic plan to continue to combat marine debris in the coming years. There are many ways to get involved.
There are lots of ways to help decrease marine debris. This “Trash Talk” video goes over some simple solutions and take a look at the following to see what can do.
Want to volunteer?: Join or lead a cleanup. Marine debris is not just a problem on our coasts – litter from inland communities can make its way into streams and rivers and be carried to the oceans or Great Lakes. Volunteer to pick up litter in your local community and help keep our coastlines clear.
Are you a student or educator?: Educating students and their families on the importance of the issue and changing the behaviors that cause debris is important. NOAA’s Marine Debris Program has developed guidelines to help reduce the amount of marine debris that enters our waters.
Are you a boater or marina owner?: You can properly stow and secure all trash on your boat, set up and clearly label recycling bins for your staff and customers, and empty trash cans, dumpsters and recycling bins regularly.
Are you a fisher?: Bring all of your trash back to shore for proper disposal in trash cans or recycling bins, including all pieces of fishing line and other fishing gear. Recycle used line in appropriate containers.
Are you a beachgoer?: Think about the materials and packaging you might be taking to the beach, and choose reusable items and use fewer disposable ones. Keep streets, sidewalks, parking lots and storm drains free of trash. At the beach, park or playground, dispose of all trash in the proper receptacles or take your trash home with you.
Communities around the country are also looking at innovative ways to prevent and reduce marine debris:
- Fishing for Energy is a successful derelict fishing gear recycling program that turns marine debris into usable energy.
- The Honolulu Strategy is a framework for a comprehensive global effort to reduce the ecological, human health and economic effects of marine debris.
- Great Lakes Action Plan provides partners with a roadmap to success for addressing marine debris in the region.
- Alabama Emergency Response Plan helps state and local officials, with federal partners, respond to acute marine debris events.
Are you interested in getting involved in the fight against marine debris? There are many additional resources to explore to learn more about the issue and get involved.
These “Trash Talk” videos are an easy and visual way to learn about marine debris
There are useful activities and curriculum designed to teach about marine debris here
Activities near you:
Find out what NOAA’s Marine Debris Program is doing in your region.