marine debris

COASTSWEEP, the statewide coastal cleanup sponsored by the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM), is part of the International Coastal Cleanup organized by Ocean Conservancy in Washington, DC. Volunteers from all over the world collect marine debris and record what they find, and the data collected are used to identify sources of marine debris and develop education and policy initiatives to help reduce it.

What Is Marine Debris?

Marine debris is any man-made, solid material that enters coastal and ocean waters directly (e.g., by dumping) or indirectly (e.g., washed out to sea via rivers, streams, storm drains, etc.). (Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] Trash Free Waters website).

Where Does Marine Debris Come From?

Marine debris comes from both the land and the sea. Trash can be carried to the ocean from land by water, wind, and people. For example, trash from poorly secured garbage cans can ride a gust of wind or be caught up in stormwater runoff and find its way to the sea. National Marine Debris Monitoring Program data shows that 49 percent of debris on U.S. beaches is from land-based sources and 18 percent is from ocean-based sources; for the remaining 33 percent, the source is undetermined. (Source: EPA Trash Free Waters website).

What Is the Impact of Marine Debris?

The problems associated with marine debris extend well beyond aesthetics.

  • Sea bird, seals, and other animals can be choked, starved, or poisoned when they mistake debris for food. A particular problem is when sea turtles die after swallowing clear plastic bags that they mistake them for jellyfish. Animals can also become entangled in nets, bags, ropes, and other trash, often resulting in drowning, suffocation, loss of mobility, or starvation.
  • Beachgoers may injure themselves on items such as pieces of glass, wood, or metal while swimming or walking on the sand.
  • Marine debris poses a threat to navigation. Propellers can become jammed with fishing line; boats can be damaged by colliding with large pieces of debris; and plastic can clog cooling intakes.

How Can I Help Reduce Marine Debris?

There are many ways that you can help reduce marine debris:

  • Participate in a COASTSWEEP Cleanup.
  • Don't litter.
  • Don't dump trash into storm drains.
  • Purchase products with little packaging.
  • Recycle.
  • Ensure that your yard is trash-free.
  • Securely cover trash cans.
  • Carefully stow trash when boating.
  • Teach others about marine debris and encourage them to take action too.

Where Can I Learn More About Marine Debris?

Resources for Teachers

  • Turning the Tide on Trash: Marine Debris Curriculum - Produced for EPA, this interdisciplinary learning guide includes more than a dozen classroom exercises on marine debris.
  • For Teachers - This Northwestern Hawaiian Island Multi-Agency Education Project web page includes a lesson plan on floating debris and links to more information.