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Our Oceans, Seas and Coasts

Descriptor 10: Marine Litter

Water protection

picture of trash on the beach"Properties and quantities of marine litter do not cause harm to the coastal and marine environment"

Marine litter is a global concern, affecting all the oceans of the world. Every year, millions and millions of tonnes of litter end up in the ocean worldwide, posing environmental, economic, health and aesthetic problems.
Poor practices of solid waste management, waste water (including storm water) collection and treatment, lack of infrastructure and awareness of the public at large about the consequences of their actions aggravate substantially the situation.
Cleaning up the oceans is one option, it is however not the most efficient method against marine litter. You could compare it to scouring the sand in the desert and this is simply something that no county could afford. The solution is to tackle the problem at its source.
Marine litter is also one of the clearest symbols of a resource inefficient economy. Valuable materials are polluting our beaches and damaging our environment instead of being pumped back into our economy. Therefore, a circular economy approach which puts the emphasis on preventing waste and on recycling and reuse of materials and products in the first place, is the best solution to the marine litter problem.

Main sources of marine litter are:


  • land-fills
  • rivers and floodwaters
  • industrial outfalls
  • discharge from storm water drains
  • untreated municipal sewerage
  • littering of beaches, coastal areas (tourism)


  • fishing and aquaculture
  • shipping (e.g. transport, tourism)
  • offshore mining and extraction
  • illegal dumping at sea

Facts & Figures

It is estimated that more than 150 million tonnes of plastics have accumulated in the world's oceans, while 4.6-12.7 million tonnes (from Jambeck are added every year.
It is broadly assumed that approximately 80% of marine litter is land-based, with regional fluctuations (for example, in the Northeast Atlantic, shipping and fishing are very important litter sources).
Marine litter can cause serious economic damage: losses for coastal communities, tourism, shipping and fishing. Potential cost across EU for coastal and beach cleaning was assessed at almost €630 million per year, while the cost to the fishing industry could amount to almost €60 million, which would represent approximately 1% of total revenues of the EU fishing fleet (in 2010). Taking into account its accumulation and dissemination, marine litter may be one of the fastest growing threats to the health of the world's oceans.

What is the EU doing?

The Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) requires EU Member States to ensure that, by 2020, "properties and quantities of marine litter do not cause harm to the coastal and marine environment".

Pollution of the seas from plastics and microplastics is one of the three major areas of the Strategy for Plastics, adopted by the Commission on 16th January 2018; most of the proposed Actions are directly or indirectly related to marine litter, including its international dimension.

Flagship initiatives against plastic pollution of the oceans, flowing from the Strategy are :

  • consideration of measures against Single Use Plastics and fishing gear: the Commission adopted its proposal in May 2018 - "Be ready to change!"
  • assessment of the need to restrict microplastics intentionally used in products under REACH and request to European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) to prepare a restriction dossier, on the basis of a Commission study regarding microplastics intentionally added in products

  • consideration of measures against microplastics generated during the life cycle of products, on the basis of another Commission study

The Commission also presented its proposal for amending the Port Reception Facilities Directive, aiming inter alia to reduce marine litter from ships, including fishing vessels and recreational craft.

The 7th Environment Action Programme calls for the development of an EU-wide "quantitative reduction headline target for marine litter, supported by source-based measures and taking into account marine strategies established by Member States". The Circular Economy Package sets a target for reducing by 30% beach litter and list fishing gear until 2020. The Ocean Governance Communication, adopted by the Commission in November 2016 puts the problem in a broader marine pollution and international context, and includes a list of actions.

Implementing the Marine Directive for litter

At EU level, the abovementioned MSFD is the dedicated binding legal instrument for assessing, monitoring, setting targets and reaching good environmental status with regard to marine litter. A group including technical experts appointed by the Member States to support them in reaching Good Environmental Status (GES) for marine litter is co-chaired by JRC; and has developed, inter alia, Guidance on Monitoring of Marine Litter in the European Seas, and more recently, thematic reports on sources of litter,  on riverine litter monitoring and on harm from marine litter.

The last report published by the JRC on the top 10 litter items most frequently found on European beaches reflects the monitoring results from the EU Member States and the Regional Seas Conventions and the analysis which was the basis for the Commission proposal on single use plastic items (see above)

The EEA has developed Marine LitterWatch, a citizen science based tool that can help fill data gaps relevant for policy, while raising awareness about the problem of litter and the policy response to it.

Contribution of other EU policies and legislation

While litter is a key marine environment and biodiversity challenge, its generation and prevention are linked to a variety of human activities and policy areas, such as waste and wastewater management, product design, shipping, fisheries policies, consumption and behavioural patterns.
Marine litter can be prevented efficiently through improved waste, in particular plastic waste, management, increased recycling, avoidance of single use products and product eco-design (e.g. plastic products designed to prevent littering, avoiding intentional use of microplastics in products) and through intensive education and awareness actions and campaigns.
Successful implementation of waste policy is therefore a prerequisite to avoid plastic litter entering the marine environment. A Directive to reduce the use of plastic bags, many of which end up as waste in the marine environment is being implemented.

The EU waste legislation has recently been amended aiming, inter alia, to halt the generation of marine litter and to strengthen the link between waste management and marine litter prevention

In order to protect and restore marine biodiversity and ecosystems in the framework of sustainable fishing activities, the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) may support the collection of waste by fishermen from the sea such as the removal of lost fishing gear and marine litter.

Projects and studies

Besides the policy and legislative activities, the EU is dedicating substantial resources to better understanding and combating marine litter through a number of RTD or other projects, including enlargement neighbourhood funding (e.g. the H2020 initiative for the depollution of the Mediterranean) and regional ( e.g. Interreg) funding.

The impact assessment of the Commission proposal on the single use plastics was supported by a dedicated study, available here.

Marine Litter Projects Funded under FP7 and Horizon 2020

Ongoing or recently finalised projects include

A project for coordinating methodologies for monitoring impacts of litter on sea turtles and other marine animals started in February 2017 (INDICIT). 

The Study to support the development of measures to combat a range of marine litter sources has been finalised (January 2016),

MARELITT, MARLISCO, the Interreg 2 Seas MICRO project and a project investigating contribution of rivers in marine litter, Clean Sea Project, Defishgear
As a follow-up to the MARELITT project, a large-scale fishing gear removal project in the Baltic is ongoing .

The LIFE Programme also supports related projects such as SMILE, AMMOS , GHOST,  LIFE DEBAG, LIFE LEMA, and MERMAIDS .
In 2014, a study assessed the reductions made possible through amendment of the EU waste legislation.
This study also provided an initial analysis of the possible contribution from other potentially relevant legislation, as well as some behavioural measures which could be introduced to drive reductions in marine litter. It builds on three pilot projects launched in 2011, which looked at the sources of marine litter generally and plastic litter in particular as the largest and most persistent component of litter encountered in the marine environment.

The abovementioned pilot projects are:

As the studies are closely linked, a common chapter has been developed integrating the respective results.

Around the EU

Within the Regional Seas Conventions around Europe, action plans on marine litter are finalized and under implementation (Mediterranean and Northeast Atlantic) and (Baltic) or starting (Black Sea). They focus on prevention or reduction of marine litter address both land- and sea-based sources of marine litter, through a range of actions at national or regional level such as improved waste and waste water management, port reception facilities, targeted fishing for litter, education, awareness raising and outreach activities. The EU participates actively in the development and implementation of these action plans and promote their coordination. A project supporting implementation of the Regional Plan against marine litter of the Barcelona Convention started in 2016. The project summary is available here. Two major projects were launched in 2017, : CleanAtlantic and Oceanwise .

On a global level

The EU participates actively and contributes substantially to international efforts for preventing and reducing marine litter and for mitigating its impacts, including through development aid and other financial instruments, such as the Partnership Instrument.


The G7 Summit adopted in June 2015 an Action Plan, covering land and sea-based sources of marine litter, awareness raising and outreach, as well as removal actions.

The Global Partnership on Marine Litter

The Global Partnership on Marine Litter (GPML) was launched in June 2012 at Rio + 20 in Brazil. The GPML, besides being supportive of the Global Partnership on Waste Management, seeks to protect human health and the global environment by the reduction and management of marine litter as its main goal, through several specific objectives.

The Honolulu Strategy

The Honolulu Strategy is a framework for a comprehensive and global effort to reduce the ecological, human health, and economic impacts of marine debris. This document is intended to help improve collaboration and coordination among the multitude of groups and governments across the globe in a position to address marine debris and to serve as a common frame of reference for action among these communities, as well as a tool for groups to develop and monitor marine debris programs and projects.

Accumulation of litter in the oceans

Great accumulation zones occurring in oceanic gyres are sometimes also referred to as a "plastic soup" of waste.  . More recent research reveals that most of the plastic litter there is actually microplastics and not large piles of material forming "islands", whereas, it is assumed, most of the plastic released in the ocean  finds its way to the sea floor. Concentration of litter is high also on the beaches. Furthermore, the problem is far from limited in subtropical regions and affects seas around Europe. For example, the Mediterranean displays a plastic particle distribution and density largely equivalent to that found in the 5 global gyres. The sources are mainly land-based and associated with poor waste (in particular plastic) and wastewater management.


Microplastics (in principle items smaller than 5mm) are of particular concern due to their potential toxicity and size, and consequent harm to the animals that ingest them. Although the consequences of plastic build-up in the food chain are not fully known yet, human-health concerns are being raised, since many of the marine animals affected end up on our plates as seafood. Recent EU-funded research in the Mediterranean revealed that more than 80% of marine litter items collected were microplastics. It further showed that even relatively clean rivers with thinly populated catchment areas (just 250,000) can transport as many as 50 billion microplastic particles annually. We also find significant loads of microplastics in analyses of plastic pollution in ice cores in the Arctic.
Used directly in products (such as exfoliants or industrial abrasives), fragmenting from larger pieces of plastic waste, or generated during the use of products (for example when washing clothes or by car tyre abrasion) and carried by sewage, microplastics are released and accumulate in the marine environment.. The scientific literature in relationship to sources, pathways and impacts of microplastics is already substantial and constantly growing.

UNEP publications
Following a request from the first UN Environment Assembly produced in 2016  a study on marine plastic litter and microplastics and a second one in 2017 related to international governance on marine litter.

Closely related to this study are the UNEP Marine Litter Vital Graphics.

GESAMP, an advisory body consisting of specialized experts on marine environmental pollution  presented recently the second phase of its work on microplastics .               

The Biodiversity Convention issued recently an updated report on marine litter impacts.