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What is Marine Debris?

Marine Debris

Photo Credit: Ocean Conservancy

Whether you call it trash, garbage, or just plain litter, marine debris is a serious threat to the world’s waters.

Marine debris is any man-made solid that finds its way into the water.

Floating plastic bottles, discarded fishing lines and fishing nets, used lighters, pieces of wrecked boats – marine debris can be almost anything made by man.

It can also be found nearly everywhere.

From the Hudson River to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, marine debris is now present all around the globe.

Since marine debris is swept along by water currents, it often accumulates most noticeably along coastlines.

Types of Marine Debris

Marine Debris on Beach

Photo Credit: Ocean Conservancy

PLASTIC: Plastic items are the most common type of marine debris.

Plastic is non-biodegradable and extremely durable. Days, weeks, and even decades in the ocean will do little to break down most plastics. Studies have found that it takes a plastic water bottle nearly 450 years to dissolve at sea. Plastic grocery bags, industrial pellets, and product packaging are all flowing into our waters every day.

FISHING GEAR: Debris like nets, lures, buoys, and lines are particularly dangerous to wildlife. Broken fishing gear and discarded nets (sometimes called ghost nets) can still ensnare unsuspecting sea creatures. Hemp rope takes 3-14 months to dissolve at sea, while plastic fishing gear can remain a hazard for decades.

FOOD PACKAGING: Plastic wrappers, disposable cups, and plastic utensils are frequently tossed over the side of a boat, left behind after a picnic at the beach, or simply washed out to sea from storm drains.

GLASS: Hunting for smooth, brightly-colored sea glass can make for a great time at the beach, but sharp broken bits of bottles can be dangerous to humans and marine animals alike.

METAL: Soda cans, aerosol cans, bottle caps, fishing hooks, and coat hangers all find their way into our waters. Metals are sometimes mistaken for food by sea creatures. It takes an aluminum can 200-500 years to dissolve at sea.

MEDICAL WASTE: Medical waste dumped into the ocean is an especially dangerous form of marine debris. Be especially careful of used needles!

Cigarette Filters

Photo Credit: Lamiot

CIGARETTE FILTERS: Cigarette filters are a particularly insidious form of marine debris. Filters absorb cancer-causing chemicals from tobacco, and research has found that these chemicals can be deadly to small marine creatures like the Daphnia magna, a water flea crustacean at the lower end of the aquatic food chain. Ninety-five percent of cigarette filters are made of a plastic called cellulose acetate, which is thinner than sewing thread and takes many years to degrade. They are often mistaken for food by marine animals. Nearly 2.1 billion pounds of cigarette filters were discarded worldwide in 1998.