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Our Oceans, Seas and Coasts

Descriptor 10: Marine Litter

Water protection

Properties and quantities of marine litter do not cause harm to the coastal and marine environment”

picture of trash on the beachMarine litter is a global concern, affecting all the oceans of the world.  Every year, millions and millions of tons of litter end up in the ocean worldwide, turning it into the world's biggest landfill and thus posing environmental, economic, health and aesthetic problems.

Sadly, the persistence of marine litter is the result of poor practices of solid waste management, lack of infrastructure and a lack of awareness of the public at large about the consequences of their actions. 

Plastic litter
The Marine Litter Express - LogoPlastic never biodegrades, but with the sunlight it splits into ever and ever smaller pieces ("photodegradation"), bits that are still plastic. The pieces get so small, that in the end they are ingested by over 180 known marine species, being mistaken for food and thus entering the food chain and ending up on your plate!

Research at the University of Plymouth has shown that plastic debris is fragmenting in the environment and that microscopic pieces of common polymers (micro plastics) are now present on shorelines and in the water column throughout the North East Atlantic. Pieces as small as 2µm have been reported and the abundance of such fragments has increased significantly over the last 40 years.

The plastics' oil base in the fragments attracts other floating chemicals in the ocean like persistent organic pollutants (POPs).  The POPs concentrate on the fragments up to a million times ambient levels in sea water itself and so the plastic fragments become poison pills.

The Garbage Patch - Plastic Soup

The Garbage Patch - Plastic Soup The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) is a layer of rubbish in the Pacific Ocean which has been growing since the 1950s. It is the result of whirling currents, pulling trash from the world's oceans and floating between California and Hawaii. It is the world's largest landfill: according to estimates it has pulled 3.5 million tons of trash and spans 3.43 million km2, or the size of Europe.  The EU has one at its frontdoor: the Atlantic Garbage Patch.

Check out how the GPGP forms here, see the map of garbage.


Plastic Beaches

Description: Plastic Beach in Hawaii (source)Plastic Beach in Hawaii (source: Algalita)

As plastic breaks into ever and ever smaller pieces, these microscopic bits of plastic not only litter the beach, it is - like fine bits of sand- becoming the beach:
- 5000 bits of plastic per m³ of sand on average.

The effects of plastic bits entering the body should not be underestimated.

"U.K. researchers in Plymouth and Southampton, England, found that microscopic fragments of nylon, polyester, and seven other types of plastic are widespread in sediments around British shores." (source: National Geographic)

Cleaning up the oceans is one option, it is however not the most efficient method in removing and preventing marine litter. You could compare it to seaming 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.

What are the main sources and pressures?

Description: lifecycleHow long does it take to photodegrade plastic in the environment?
Main sources of marine litter come from

  • Land-based activities:
  • land-fills
  • rivers and floodwaters
  • industrial outfalls
  • discharge from storm water drains
  • untreated municipal sewerage
  • littering of beaches, coastal areas (tourism)
  • fishing industry
  • Marine based activities:
  • shipping (eg. transport, tourism, fishing)
  • offshore mining and extraction
  • illegal dumping at sea
  • discared fishing gear’


In the North Sea, half of the litter comes from ships. (Source: UNEP, KIMO)

Facts & Figures

  • Approximately 80% of marine litter is land-based
  • In 2004, marine water samples contain 6 times more plastic than plankton, i.e. out of 7 kilo, 6 kilos of plastic vs. 1 kilo of plankton (source: Algalita)
  • Cruise ships: 95.000 m³ of sewage from toilets and 5.420.000 m³ of sewage from sinks, galleys and showers are released into the oceans each day (source: Oceana)
  • 250.000 kg of waste are removed from the North Sea yearly (source: KIMO)
  • Samples of strandline material contain more than 10% plastic per weight.  The fragments will increase with production. (source: KIMO)


Marine litter can cause serious economic damage: losses for coastal communities, tourism, shipping, fishing.

What is the EU doing?

The new policy initiative "Towards a circular economy: A zero waste programme for Europe" includes proposals for revising the waste legislation and for an aspirational target for reducing marine litter by 30% until 2020. Setting a dedicated reduction target for 2020 can be a clear signal to Member States currently developing measures to achieve ‘good environmental status’ for marine waters by the 2020 deadline under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, and provide an impetus for the development of marine litter action plans within the four Regional Sea Conventions. Other EU-level measures, incorporating inter alia the results of the ongoing evaluation of the Port Reception Facilities Directive, will also contribute to the achievement of the target. A second stage of the reduction target will be developed in due time, based on further analysis of the reduction potential from other land- and sea-based sources, and taking into ac count the commitment made at Rio+20 to achieve significant marine litter reductions by 2025

the 7th Environment Action Programme (EAP) requires, by 2020, combating pollution and establishing a Union-wide quantitative reduction headline target for marine litter supported by source- based measures and taking into account the marine strategies established by Member States.

18/10/2013: The European Commission is exploring options to set an EU-wide quantitative reduction headline target for marine litter, as called for in the recently-agreed 7th Environment Action Programme. The marine litter consultation is looking for additional input from citizens and stakeholders. Your views will help to identify the appropriate level of ambition for such a target. The questionnaire contains a series of actions that could be undertaken by consumers, retailers, the plastics industry, the shipping and fisheries industries, NGOs, local and national authorities and EU policy-makers to reduce the presence and impact of marine litter. These options include avoiding the use of single use plastic bags and plastic bottles, awareness-raising, clean-up actions, and setting reduction targets at national or local levels. Have your say here and read the press release!

16/11/2012: Commission press release "EU aiming to be at the forefront of efforts to reduce marine litter"
The Commission published a Commission Staff Working Document with an overview of relevant EU legislation, policies and strategies that touch on this problem.  The document also includes an indication of on-going and future initiatives in this area. 

Environment is a key component of the Integrated Maritime Policy (IMP) and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (Marine Directive), adopted in 2008.

The main goal of the Marine Directive is to achieve "Good Environmental Status" (GES) of all marine waters of the European Union by 2020. The decision under Article 9(3) MSFD on criteria of good environmental status addresses marine litter in descriptor 10 and aims at achieving that "Properties and quantities of marine litter do not cause harm to the coastal and marine environment".

The success of the Marine Directive depends largely on the effective integration of marine environmental concerns in EU legislation and policies. The Marine Directive aims to achieve this by providing a long-term policy view of the seas and enhanced cooperation in marine regions and internationally.

As a follow up to the Commission Decision on criteria and methodological standards on good environmental status (GES) of marine waters (Commission Decision 2010/477/EU), the Marine Directors requested the Directorate-General for the Environment (DG ENV) in 2010 to establish a technical subgroup under the Working Group on GES (WG GES) in relation to the Marine Strategy Framework Directive 2008/56/EC (MSFD) for further development of Descriptor 10 Marine Litter and Descriptor 11 Noise/Energy. For practical reasons the work was carried out by two separate groups. The reports compile the recommendations regarding Descriptor 10 (Marine Litter) and Descriptor 11 (Noise).

Marine Litter High-Level Preparatory Meeting - Stakeholders to tackle solutions for marine litter

The Environment Directorate General of the European Commission organised stakeholder meetings on 22 September 2011 and 30 November 2011 to explore common solutions to the problem of marine litter. The meeting with interested parties follows a speech of Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik on the protection of the Mediterranean, in which he called for partnerships with all stakeholders, starting with industry, to further investigate what can be done at European level to encourage voluntary agreements with and within industry to reduce marine litter. Participants were invited to brainstorm on stakeholder involvement in the coordination of initiatives already under development and to propose new ideas. Emphasis was put on a non-legislative approach. The summary of actions that result from the brainstorming served as a basis for the high-level conference, that took place in Berlin on 10-12 April 2013.

Meeting summary
Meeting Summary 30/11/2011
Meeting summary 27/02/2012

Clean up the Med! Commissioner Potočnik visits Athens

Commissioners Janez Potočnik and Maria Damanaki went on a joint visit to Athens between 7 and 8 April to raise awareness about the actions of the European Commission at this stage to address marine litter.  During his stay, Mr Potočnik spoke to the National Parliament and the General Assembly of the European Youth Parliament where he reiterated the increasingly serious threat marine litter poses to the marine environment.  He also met with the Members of the Greek Government, several NGOs active in the field of environment and visited a waste water treatment facility.

Link to video and speech.
Press clippings

Commission Workshop on Marine Litter (Brussels, 8 November 2010)

The presence of marine litter in our oceans is becoming a global concern that requires action.  Adequate measures are needed to address the pressure of litter in the marine environment both at sea and on land whereby public awareness plays an important role.
Following an answer by environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik to Parliamentary question of Caroline Lucas and Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy (E-0825/10 and E-0104/10), the Commission organised a workshop on marine litter in Brussels on 8 November 2010.
The workshop brought together the main players in the field of marine litter, such as policy-makers, NGOs, the science community and the (plastic) industry. In a result-oriented and open discussion, we took stock of the state of the marine environment with regard to marine litter, including the so-called plastic soup, the latest scientific insights of its (potential) effects and explored possible solutions.


Plastic fragment found in 5-week old rainbow runnerCommission to analyse possible action against use of plastic bags

Austria, supported by a large number of Member States, invited the Commission to analyse possible regulatory action against the use of plastic bags, given the highly negative impact on the environment of the mass of single-use plastic bags put into circulation annually within the EU (estimated at 800 000 tons).

On a global level: the Honolulu Strategy

The Honolulu Strategy, published by UNEP and the NOAA Marine Debris Program, is a framework for a comprehensive and global effort to reduce the ecological, human health, and economic impacts of marine debris. This document is the result of last year’s successful 5th International Marine Debris Conference (5IMDC), which brought together a wide array of stakeholders passionate about finding lasting solutions to the marine debris problem, and ongoing consultations with relevant stakeholders in the months following the conference. It 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. It is intended 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.

The final version of the Honolulu Strategy can be downloaded here.


A study assessed the reductions made possible through the waste legislation, amended as proposed by the Commission. This study also involved 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 in turn builds on the below mentioned 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 final report of this study is available here.

The European Commission commissioned 3 Pilot Projects (studies) on marine litter. 

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

The results of the studies are now available here:


The European Commission is currently running a Pilot Project "Removal of marine litter from Europe's four regional seas" (MARELITT). The overall objective is to assist EU Member States in reaching the objective of achieving ‘good environmental status’ (GES) of all EU marine waters by 2020 as laid out in the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (2008/56/EC) (MSFD) and reducing the impact of marine litter on the coastal and marine environment. MARELITT will assess existing marine litter removal projects in Europe’s four regional seas from the organisational, economic and environmental perspectives.  The assessment will allow for the definition of good practices.

The project runs from January 2013 until December 2014.

Other Projects

What's new

25/09/2014 - A study analysing options for marine litter reduction was recently finalised; the final report is available here

02/07/2014 - On 2 July 2014, the European Commission adopted a Communication entitled "Towards a circular economy: A zero waste programme for Europe" and proposed an aspirational target of reducing marine litter by 30 % by 2020 for the ten most common types of litter found on beaches, as well as for fishing gear found at sea, with the list adapted to each of the four marine regions in the EU.

12/06/2014: Penalty for the world's oceans!
Photographer Mandy Barker's online appeal for washed-up footballs from around the globe resulted in a PENALTY: a series of four images designed to highlight the impact of plastic accumulating in the world's oceans (source: The Guardian).  Read more here...

31/01/2014: Full details and results of the public consultation on marine litter available here.

06/12/2013 Commissioner Janez Potočnik welcomes plan to cut marine litter in the Mediterranean.  Read the press release...

25/09/2013: Consultation to tackle the problem of marine litter launched!  Find out more about it and participate here (until 18/12/2013)

10/09/2013: The results of the online consulation on the Review of the European Waste Management Targets will be presented on 30/09/2013 at the Conference on plastic waste

24/05/2013: EEA Marine LitterWatch – a mobile application engaging European citizens in tackling beach litter. Find out more here.

22/05/2013: European Maritime Day – Workshop "Removal of marine litter in Europe's 4 regional seas". The programme and speeches are available here!

13/05/2013: ZDF Documentary on litter "Ultimate destination ocean".  See it here.

12/04/2013: Message in a bottle - Read the conclusions of the Berlin conference.

07/03/2013: Now published: Green Paper on Plastic Waste in the Environment!  Chapter 5.7 on marine litter. Read more...

Press conference  of Janez Potočnik and Jeremy Irons, Narrator and Executive Producer of the documentary film 'Trashed'.

What YOU can do!

Recycle Don't use disposable plastics, sort your waste
Reuse Use canvas or re-usable grocery bags, make compost
Reduce Choose glass bottles (glass can be used eternally, 100% recycled)
Refuse Drink tap water
Repair Repair your broken objects or re-design them for a second life
Redesign Use products with natural ingredients


The throw-away society can no longer be contained

Want to help?

Beach clean ups help by preventing litter entering the ocean.  They are regularly organised, even on your holiday destination or in your neighbourhood.  Want to join one?  Check-in here at Ocean Conservancy.