Marine litter is a global problem. Every year many millions of tonnes of litter end up in the oceans, making it the world’s biggest landfill. Marine litter is now present in every ocean and poses the fastest growing threat to our oceans and coastlines. It originates both from land-based and sea-based sources and is a pollutant that causes ecological harm to marine species. It breaks down into tiny particles that can end up in the human food chain. It adsorbs harmful chemicals and facilitates the travel of invasive species. It causes serious economic harm to marine industries and to local authorities, with losses for coastal communities, tourism, fishing and shipping. It affects recreational opportunities and aesthetic value – nobody wants to sit on a litter-covered beach!
Marine litter can be ingested by marine mammals and birds and kills hundreds of thousands of animals every year. Animals can become entangled in discarded ropes and nets or trapped in plastic containers. Plastic strapping bands can be particularly hazardous for inquisitive animals such as seals. They swim through the bands, catching them around their necks. The bands cut into their skin as they grow, causing injury and slow, painful death. Seabirds are also at risk of harm – 98% of fulmars in the North Sea have plastic in their stomachs which leads to a loss of physical conditions resulting in breeding failure. In many cases it causes starvation and death.
Plastic degrades slowly and the ever-increasing quantity of items that we dispose of is causing an increase in the amount of marine litter found in our seas and coastal areas. Consequently, the resulting environmental and economic problems are worsening.
Local authorities throughout the Northeast Atlantic region continue to face high costs associated with the removal of beach litter. A study of the economic impacts of marine litter carried out by KIMO in 2010 showed that UK and Dutch local authorities spent a total of €28 million each year removing beach litter. The study also showed that for most local authorities, the potential impact of marine litter on tourism provided the principal motivation for removing beach litter.
The economic impact of marine litter occurs at a local level but action to reduce it must be global. Marine litter originates from many sources and there needs to be a step change in how the problem is treated at national and international level. The Marine Strategy Framework Directive is the only
EU legislation that requires member states to apply specific measures to reduce marine litter. If Good Environmental Status is to be achieved by 2020 then a broad-based approach must be adopted which not only involves cleaning up our oceans but, above all, addresses the ways we design and treat plastic products, focussing not on disposal but on re-use, recycling and valorisation. The challenges are not new but we must find better ways to address them if we are to significantly reduce marine litter.
KIMO was one of the first organisations to document the devastating effects of plastic waste and to raise internationally the issue of micro plastics and we have worked continually at national, EU and international level to:
- raise awareness of the problems caused by marine litter;
- campaign for improvements in legislation to address these
- find sustainable solutions to mitigate these problems through practical projects, education and outreach and supporting scientific research.
Sources of Marine Litter
Marine litter results from human actions and behaviour, whether intentional or unintentional, and is the product of poor waste management, inadequate infrastructure and lack of public knowledge about the potential consequences of inappropriate waste management (UNEP 2009). Cleaning up the oceans is necessary to remove the litter that is already there but the problem must also be tackled at source.
Around 60-80% of marine litter comes from land based sources such as land-fill, rivers and floodwaters, industrial outfall, storm water drains, untreated municipal sewerage and littering of beaches/coastal areas from tourism. Up to 40% comes from ocean-based sources – the fishing industry (derelict fishing gear), shipping (transport and tourism), offshore mining and extraction, offshore oil and gas installations and dumping at sea. It is estimated that more than 20,000 tonnes per year are dumped into the North Sea alone!
KIMO uses practical solutions to address the problems caused by litter in the oceans. Our Fishing for Litter projects are hugely successful in encouraging fishermen to bring ashore abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear that they find during their normal fishing activities
KIMO works to raise awareness and facilitate the behavioural changes that play an important role in prevention. We work with governments, the EU, other organisations and NGOs to influence changes in legislation towards a resource-efficient circular economy where waste is recycled and re-used.