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?

  • WUMB Commonwealth Journal Radio Interview - In this interview, CZM's Robin Lacey explains about COASTSWEEP and marine debris (aired 9/16/12).
  • Trash Free Waters - This EPA website gives extensive information on marine debris, its sources, and what is being done to address the problem.
  • Marine Debris - The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Marine Debris Program maintains this website with extensive information on marine debris, funding opportunities to address the problem, art contests to raise awareness, and much, much more.
  • Marine Debris Blog - The NOAA Marine Debris Program also writes a blog on marine debris issues and activities.
  • Fighting for Trash Free Seas - This Ocean Conservancy webpage includes extensive information on marine debris and the international coastal cleanup, along with links to news articles, reports, and sources of additional information.
  • What Is Marine Debris? - This web page from the NOAA Marine Debris Program talks about the sources and types of marine debris.
  • Interagency Report On Marine Debris Sources, Impacts, Strategies & Recommendations - NOAA's Interagency Marine Debris Coordinating Committee submitted this report to the U.S. Congress in August 2008.
  • Assessing and Monitoring Floatable Debris - This EPA web page can help states, tribes, and local governments develop assessment and monitoring programs for floatable debris in coastal recreation waters.
  • Voluntary Estuary Monitoring: A Methods Manual - This EPA manual includes a chapter on marine debris (Chapter 16), with techniques on organizing a volunteer marine debris monitoring and cleanup program.
  • Stow It-Don’t Throw It - This youth-driven marine debris prevention effort recruits students and educators to share in marine debris prevention through education and outreach.
  • Marine Debris as a Global Environmental Problem - The Global Environment Facility released this report on land-based sources and types of plastic debris.
  • Algalita - This website provides information on marine debris and the work of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation to protect the marine environment through research and education on marine plastic pollution.
  • In Search of "Moby-Duck" - In this interview, Author Donovan Hohn discusses his book, Moby-Duck, and lessons learned from his quest to find out what happened to 28,800 bath toys lost at sea in 1992.
  • Fishing for Pollution in the Atlantic - This Boston Globe article from July 14, 2010, talks about the Atlantic Garbage Patch—an area in the middle of the ocean where plastic debris collects.
  • 5 Gyres - This website provides information on five gyres where plastic debris collects in the world's oceans.
  • Giant Ocean-Trash Vortex Attracts Explorers - This National Geographic News article of July 31, 2009, discusses the swirling garbage patch in the Pacific.
  • Plastic Breaks Down in Ocean, After All—And Fast - Also from National Geographic News, this August 20, 2009, article explains how some plastics degrade quickly at sea, but that they leach toxic chemicals into the environment.
  • Cigarette Butts Toxic to Fish, Say Researchers - This CBS News article talks about how cigarette butts (the number one item found in COASTSWEEP cleanups) can poison fish in the marine environment.

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.