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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"

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 and littering of beaches and coastal areas (tourism)
  • rivers and floodwaters
  • industrial emissions
  • discharge from storm water drains
  • untreated municipal sewerage


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

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.According to recent studies, the annual flow of plastic waste into the ocean could almost triple by 2040 to 29 million metric tons per year, equivalent to 50 kg of plastic for every metre of coastline worldwide
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); at the same time sea-based sources receive increasing attention, both because of the quantities of e.g. lost or abandoned fishing gear, but also of the damage to marine life and negative impacts on fishing and economy.
Marine litter can indeed cause serious economic damage: losses for coastal communities, tourism, shipping and fishing. 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 in 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:

The Directive on Single Use Plastics and fishing gear introduces a set of ambitious measures:

  • a ban on selected single-use products made of plastic for which alternatives exist on the market: cotton bud sticks, cutlery, plates, straws, stirrers, sticks for balloons, as well as cups, food and beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene and on all products made of oxo-degradable plastic;
  • measures to reduce consumption of food containers and beverage cups made of plastic and specific marking and labelling of certain products;
  • extended Producer Responsibility schemes covering the cost to clean-up litter, applied to products such as tobacco filters and fishing gear;
  • a 90% separate collection target for plastic bottles by 2029 (77% by 2025) and the introduction of design requirements to connect caps to bottles, as well as target to incorporate 25% of recycled plastic in PET bottles as from 2025 and 30% in all plastic bottles as from 2030.

Measures to reduce emissions of microplastics releases to the environment

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. 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 and stormwater, microplastics are released and accumulate in the aquatic and marine environment. The scientific literature in relationship to sources, pathways and impacts of microplastics is already substantial and constantly growing. A high-level scientific opinion on 'Environmental and Health Risks of Microplastic Pollution' was published recently in the EU.

ECHA, the EU Chemicals’ Agency, has published its restriction dossier; health and environmental risks posed by intentionally added microplastics justify an EU-wide restriction.

ECHA scientific committees are currently assessing the measures. The proposed EU-wide restriction could cover intentionally added microplastics in multiple applications including agriculture, horticulture, cosmetic products, paints, coatings, detergents, maintenance products, medical and pharmaceutical applications. The restriction could be in place as of end 2021/early 2022.


In the new Circular Economy Action Plan, the Commission committed to address also  unintentional releases of microplastics by developing labelling, standardisation, certification and regulatory measures. Where reduction of the emissions at source is not possible, measures at later stages of the life-cycle will be envisaged. This action will be launched in 2021. The Commission will also look at harmonising methods for measuring unintentionally releases of microplastics, and at closing the gaps on scientific knowledge related to the risks and occurrence of microplastics in the environment, drinking water and foods.

So far, the sources that have received the most attention are also the largest contributors in today’s European context, on the basis of a study  i.e. 1) synthetic textiles during their entire life-cycle 2) tyres because of tyre abrasion and 3) pre-production plastic pellets during their entire life-cycle., see also figure below. The Commission will ensure coherence with other existing or future initiatives like the Sustainable Product Policy Initiative, the review of the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive, the future European Strategy on Textiles or the revision of the Tyre Labelling Regulation. 

microplastics graph

The Port Reception Facilities Directive, aims, inter alia, to effectively address marine litter from shipping, including from fishing, by providing for financial incentives for delivery of waste to ports, better monitoring and enforcement of the mandatory delivery obligation and better management of this waste in EU ports in adequate port reception facilities.

Implementing the Marine Directive for litter

The abovementioned MSFD is the first EU legal instrument to address explicitly marine litter. Assessment of the status, target setting, monitoring, reporting and implementation of measures related to marine litter and microlitter are carried out in accordance with relevant MSFD provisions and have been further specified within a Commission Decision ( 2017/848/EU).

The first adopted threshold value refers to macrolitter on coastlines; this is the culmination of a stepwise approach, involving the establishment of baselines for macrolitter on coastlines as well as a broad overview of concepts supporting definition of threshold values for marine litter. In the course of this work a report was published by the JRC on the top 10 litter items most frequently found on European beaches, based on the monitoring results from the EU Member States and the Regional Seas Conventions; this analysis provided the basis for the Single Use Plastics Directive(see above)

The Commission assessment of the measures submitted by the Member States was published in July 2018. Implementation of MSFD activities against marine litter is supported by the MSFD Technical Group on Marine Litter, bringing together experts from Member States, Regional Sea Conventions, NGOs, roof organisations and scientific project leads. It acts as an advisory group to the policy process and links science with policy, providing guidance and recommendations on relevant issues such as e.g. harm caused by marine litter, sources of marine litter and riverine litter. Based on the work of this Group, the JRC has prepared a Joint list of litter categories, so that collected data are recorded in a harmonised way

Importantly, it intends to strengthen its activities in assessing effectiveness of measures against marine litter and at international level on issues such as harmonisation of monitoring/assessment.


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 was amended in 2018 aiming, inter alia, to halt the generation of marine litter and to strengthen the link between waste management and marine litter prevention. The amended Waste Framework Directive acknowledges that, since marine litter, in particular plastic, stems to a large extent from land-based activities, specific measures should be laid down in waste prevention programmes and waste management plans (see in particular Article 28 paragraph 3 (iii)(f) and Article 28 paragraph 5) . Those measures should be coordinated with the measures required under MSFD and the EU Water Framework Directive (Directive 2000/60/EC).

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.

Marine Litter Projects Funded under FP7 and Horizon 2020, the EU Research and Innovation Programme (2014-2020). More recent examples include TOPIOS, SeaChange and ResponSeable. Eurosea will contribute to globally harmonised plastic litter monitoring, while CLAIM will look at innovative technologies for cleaning  our seas and oceans

Ongoing or finalised projects include

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

A comprehensive study to support the development of measures to combat a range of marine litter sources was carried out in 2016.

The LIFE Programme also supports related projects such as  LIFE DEBAG (Integrated information and awareness campaign for the reduction of plastic bags in the marine environment), LIFE LEMA (Intelligent marine litter removal and management for local authorities), and MERMAIDS, LIFE SouPLESS (NL) – is about sustainable riverine plastic removal and management, while CLEAN SEA LIFE, focuses on awareness raising.

The Blue Economy call 2017 resulted in 5 projects on marine litter with the aim to develop new technologies and monitoring approaches.

The Circular Ocean project helps communities to realise economic opportunities of discarded fishing gear in the Northern Periphery & Arctic region

Awareness raising and behavioural change

Awareness raising resulting in behavioural change, especially among young people, is an integral part of any meaningful strategy against marine litter, it includes the understanding that prevention is the only long-term solution to pollution and that the contribution of all, according to their competences and capabilities, is necessary. The EU not only finances dedicated projects focused on awareness raising but also requires dissemination and communication activities in almost all EU-funded projects against litter.

The Commission launched an awareness-raising campaign to highlight citizens' role in combatting plastic pollution and marine litter; together with the United Nations Environment Programme and other partners the Commission coordinates a global network of aquariums to raise public awareness about plastic pollution.; on the occasion of World Cleanup Day the Commission and the European External Action Service is organise the #EUBeachCleanup campaign.

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. For example a project supporting implementation of the Regional Plan against marine litter of the Barcelona Convention contributed also to the development of a Regional Action Plan against marine litter in the Black Sea.  A follow-up project started in September 2020.

Other relevant major EU-funded projects in the Mediterranean include the Plastic Busters –investigating impacts of plastic litter on marine life and ways to reduce it, ACT4LITTER, which developed proposals for measures to protect ecosystems in marine protected areas from litter pollution and WES –(Water and Environment Support in the Southern mediterranean region) In the northeast Atlantic area, two major projects were launched in 2017 : CleanAtlantic improves capabilities to monitor, prevent and remove (macro) marine litter and Oceanwise aims to develop a set of longterm measures to reduce the impact of expanded polystyrene products (EPS)

In the Baltic, FanpLESStic aims at preventing and decreasing the pollution from microplastics while the Blastic project maps sources and pathways and supports monitoring, with a focus on urban areas.

In the Black Sea, the EMBLAS project supports monitoring programmes, including for marine litter, throughout the Black Sea, while MARLITER  supports digital maps on marine environmental conditions, including for marine litter movement patterns.

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 and the G20 countries adopted their Action Plan in 2017. An EU G20 online workshop on “Measures to address marine plastic leakage through a circular economy approach” was organised by the European Commission on 8 September 2020, the report is available here.

The 4th UN Environment Assembly adopted in March 2019 resolutions aiming to tackle ocean pollution from plastics and microplastics; and from single use plastic products

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) adopted an action plan, to contribute to the global solution for preventing marine plastic litter entering the oceans through ship-based activities.

The EU has also undertaken a number of commitments under the last Our Oceans Conference 

UNEP publications

UNEP established a Scientific Advisory Committee on Marine Litter and Microplastics to guide and inform the implementation of abovementioned 4th UN Environment Assembly resolution, in particular the development of the assessment on sources, pathways and hazards of litter, including plastic litter and microplastics pollution; the Committee produced its report.

GESAMP, an advisory body consisting of specialized experts on marine environmental pollution presented recently its Guidelines for the Monitoring and Assessment of Plastic Litter in the Ocean.

The Biodiversity Convention issued reports on marine litter impacts.