Marine debris is litter that ends up in oceans, seas, or other large bodies of water.

This manmade debris gets into the water in many ways. People often leave trash on beaches or throw it into the water from boats or offshore facilities, such as oil rigs. Sometimes, litter makes its way into the ocean from land. This debris is carried by storm drains, canals, or rivers. The wind can even blow trash from landfills and other areas into the water. Storms and accidents at sea can cause ships to sink or to lose cargo.

Types of Debris

Any kind of trash can get into the ocean—from glass bottles to aluminum cans to medical waste. The vast majority of marine debris, however, is plastic.

Plastic products can be very harmful to marine life. For instance, loggerhead sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, their favorite food. And many sea animals and birds have become strangled by the plastic rings used to hold six-packs of soda together.

Plastics do not biodegrade quickly. Ironically, some new biodegradable plastics might not break down in oceans at all. These products are designed to break down when they heat up in a landfill or compost pile. Cooler ocean temperatures prevent these products from truly degrading.

Instead, like many other types of plastic, they simply break down into tiny particles called microplastics. Microplastics are pieces of debris between 0.3 and 5 millimeters (0.01 to 0.20 inches) thick, no thicker than a grain of rice. One example of microplastics is “nurdles,” the manmade pellets of raw material used in making plastic products. These tiny pieces of plastic can collect in the stomachs of marine animals, interfering with digestion. When marine animals ingest nurdles, they can feel “full” although they are not getting nutrients. The animals are at risk of malnutrition and starvation.

Floating on the ocean’s surface, nurdles and other small plastic pieces can block the sun’s rays from reaching plants and algae that depend on the sun to create nutrients. When these organisms are threatened, the entire marine food web may be disturbed.

As plastics get smaller and smaller, they release chemicals. One of those chemicals can be bisphenol A (BPA). Bisphenol A can interfere with animals’ reproductive systems. Fish are especially at risk when exposed to bisphenol A. Exposed fish produce fewer healthy offspring.

Bisphenol A and other chemicals build up in the fish’s body through a process called bioaccumulation. Plants or algae may absorb bisphenol A through the water. A fish, already exposed to the chemical, ingests more bisphenol A when it eats the algae. Top predators such as sharks or dolphins, which eat the fish, accumulate the most chemicals.

A reduction in the fish population can impact human activity in the area. Fisheries shrink, weakening the area’s economy. Fish that are harvested may have a high amount of toxins or other marine debris in their system as a result of bioaccumulation. Some of these toxins, such as mercury or bisphenol A, may be harmful to people, putting consumers at risk.

Another type of marine debris that is harmful to sea life comes from fishing gear. Discarded fishing lines and nets don’t stop fishing once humans are done with them. They continue to trap fish, along with marine mammals, turtles, and birds.


The Widening Gyre

Marine debris tends to collect in areas called ocean gyres. A gyre is a circular ocean current formed by the Earth’s wind patterns and the forces created by the rotation of the planet. The area in the center of a gyre tends to be very calm and stable. The circular motion of the gyre draws in debris. The garbage makes its way into the center of the gyre, where it becomes trapped and builds up.

Trash build-ups in the middle of gyres are known as garbage patches. For example, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch exists in the North Pacific Ocean between the U.S. states of California and Hawaii. There is a similar patch in the North Atlantic Ocean.

For many people, the idea of a “garbage patch” conjures up images of an island of trash floating on the ocean. In reality, these patches are usually made up of microplastics that can’t always be seen by the naked eye. Satellite imagery of the oceans do not reveal a giant patch of garbage. Even so, scientists have found up to 750,000 bits of plastic in a single square kilometer (or 1.9 million bits per square mile) in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. They have found more then 200,000 pieces of trash per square kilometer (520,000 bits per square mile) in areas of the Atlantic garbage patch.

No one knows exactly how much marine debris is in the oceans. Ocean gyres are too vast for scientists or volunteers to trawl the entire surface scooping up trash. In addition, not all of the trash floats. Denser debris can sink to the middle or bottom of the water. We have no way to measure this unseen marine debris.

What We Can Do About Marine Debris

Cleaning up marine debris is not as easy as it sounds. Many pieces of debris are the same size as small sea animals, so nets designed to scoop up trash would catch these creatures as well. Even if we could design nets that would just catch garbage, the size of the oceans makes this job too time-consuming to consider. And no one can reach trash that has sunk to the ocean floor.

Because of these difficulties, most environmentalists focus on preventing more garbage from entering the oceans. Since people became aware of the problem, governments and international organizations have passed laws against ocean dumping to try to reduce marine debris.

Many organizations, like the National Geographic Society, are working to educate people about the dangers of littering oceans. Through the Mission Blue program, National Geographic is working with other organizations, such as the Ocean Conservancy and Sea Web, to educate the public about threats to the ocean.

National Geographic Emerging Explorer David de Rothschild often collaborates with the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. Algalita’s founder, Charles Moore, discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch while sailing from Hawaii to California. De Rothschild’s organization, Adventure Ecology, and Algalita both work to reduce the amount of marine debris, especially plastics.

Everyone can help reduce the problem. The most important rule—don’t litter! Don’t leave trash on the beach, toss it from a boat, or litter anywhere else. Remember, even trash dumped on land can make its way into bodies of water. In addition, remember to reduce, reuse, and recycle. The less trash we produce, the less that will end up in the ecosystem.

marine debris
Marine debris is rarely this big—or easy to get rid of.

Trashy Houses
Some sea creatures make homes out of garbage. Researchers from the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, found a bucket covered in algae and other organisms. About two dozen triggerfish also used the bucket as a home base. Triggerfish normally live in coral reefs, but this bucket was more than 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) from the nearest reef. Sadly, a garbage patch is not a healthy homethe scientists found more than 40 pieces of plastic in one fish's digestive tract.

International Coastal Cleanup
International Coastal Cleanup is the third Saturday in September. The event features beach clean-ups, river clean-ups, and even underwater clean-ups for dive sites. It is the world's largest volunteer effort to clean up the marine environment and collect marine environmental data from both land and underwater sites. Click here to sign up for the annual project.

absorb
Verb

to soak up.

algae
Plural Noun

(singular: alga) diverse group of aquatic organisms, the largest of which are seaweeds.

Noun

narrow strip of land that lies along a body of water.

bioaccumulation
Noun

process by which chemicals are absorbed by an organism, either from exposure to a substance with the chemical or by consumption of food containing the chemical.

biodegradable
Adjective

able to decompose naturally.

bisphenol A (BPA)
Noun

chemical used to make some types of plastic that may be unsafe for people, especially infants.

canal
Noun

artificial waterway.

cargo
Noun

goods carried by a ship, plane, or other vehicle.

chemical
Noun

molecular properties of a substance.

compost
Noun

mixture of decaying organic material, such as food waste and plants.

conjure
Verb

to imagine or bring to mind.

consumer
Noun

person who uses a good or service.

Noun

steady, predictable flow of fluid within a larger body of that fluid.

debris
Noun

remains of something broken or destroyed; waste, or garbage.

degrade
Verb

to lower the quality of something.

dense
Adjective

having parts or molecules that are packed closely together.

digest
Verb

to convert food into nutrients that can be absorbed.

discard
Verb

to throw away.

economy
Noun

system of production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.

Noun

community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.

Emerging Explorer
Noun

an adventurer, scientist, innovator, or storyteller recognized by National Geographic for their visionary work while still early in their careers.

environmentalist
Noun

person who studies or works to protect the Earth's ecosystems.

facility
Noun

a building or room that serves a specific function.

fishery
Noun

industry or occupation of harvesting fish, either in the wild or through aquaculture.

Noun

all related food chains in an ecosystem. Also called a food cycle.

government
Noun

system or order of a nation, state, or other political unit.

Noun

harvested seed of such grasses as wheat, oats, and rice.

Noun

area of the North Pacific Ocean where currents have trapped huge amounts of debris, mostly plastics.

harvest
Noun

the gathering and collection of crops, including both plants and animals.

ingest
Verb

to take material, such as food or medicine, into a body.

interfere
Verb

to meddle or prevent a process from reaching completion.

Noun

unit made up of governments or groups in different countries, usually for a specific purpose.

Noun

body of land surrounded by water.

jellyfish
Noun

type of marine animal, not a fish, with a soft body and stinging tentacles.

landfill
Noun

site where garbage is layered with dirt and other absorbing material to prevent contamination of the surrounding land or water.

litter
Noun

trash or other scattered objects left in an open area or natural habitat.

loggerhead sea turtle
Noun

reptile native to non-polar oceans.

malnutrition
Noun

lack of a balanced diet.

marine
Adjective

having to do with the ocean.

Noun

garbage, refuse, or other objects that enter the coastal or ocean environment.

medical waste
Noun

material thrown away from healthcare facilities such as hospitals, including blood, tissue, and medical instruments.

mercury
Noun

chemical element with the symbol Hg.

microplastic
Noun

piece of plastic between 0.3 and 5 millimeters in diameter.

National Geographic Society
Noun

(1888) organization whose mission is "Inspiring people to care about the planet."

nurdle
Noun

small pellet of plastic that is eventually melted and molded into a plastic product.

Noun

substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.

Noun

large body of salt water that covers most of the Earth.

Noun

an area of ocean that slowly rotates in an enormous circle.

offshore
Adjective

having to do with facilities or resources located underwater, usually miles from the coast.

offspring
Noun

the children of a person or animal.

oil rig
Noun

complex series of machinery and systems used to drill for oil on land.

particle
Noun

small piece of material.

pellet
Noun

small, rounded object.

Noun

large, spherical celestial body that regularly rotates around a star.

plastic
Noun

chemical material that can be easily shaped when heated to a high temperature.

reduction
Noun

lowering.

reproductive system
Noun

organs involved in an organism's reproduction.

Noun

large stream of flowing fresh water.

Noun

object's complete turn around its own axis.

satellite imagery
Noun

photographs of a planet taken by or from a satellite.

Noun

large part of the ocean enclosed or partly enclosed by land.

starvation
Noun

dying from lack of food.

storm
Noun

severe weather indicating a disturbed state of the atmosphere resulting from uplifted air.

storm drain
Noun

system to empty streets of excess rainwater. Storm drains flow into local creeks, rivers, or seas.

strangle
Verb

to choke, or cause death by preventing breathing.

Noun

degree of hotness or coldness measured by a thermometer with a numerical scale.

top predator
Noun

species at the top of the food chain, with no predators of its own. Also called an alpha predator or apex predator.

toxin
Noun

poisonous substance, usually one produced by a living organism.

trawl
Verb

to fish by dragging a large net along the bottom of the body of water.

vast
Adjective

huge and spread out.

wind
Noun

movement of air (from a high pressure zone to a low pressure zone) caused by the uneven heating of the Earth by the sun.