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COASTSWEEP - More on Marine Debris

Learn about the sources and impacts of marine debris and how you can help solve this problem.

Marine debris is trash, fishing line, and other items that get into the ocean and onto the shore. COASTSWEEP, the statewide beach cleanup sponsored by the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM), works to remove marine debris in Massachusetts. COASTSWEEP is part of Ocean Conservancy's International Coastal Cleanup, where volunteers worldwide collect marine debris and record data to help identify its sources and develop education and policy initiatives to reduce it.

The information below gives an overview of the marine debris problem. For a full list of information available on the COASTSWEEP website, see Overview and Index.

What Is Marine Debris?

Marine debris is any human-made, solid material that enters coastal and ocean waters directly (e.g., by littering, dumping, or being swept overboard) or indirectly (e.g., by being washed out to sea via rivers, streams, storm drains, etc.). (Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] Trash Free Waters website). Marine debris includes trash, fishing gear, shipping cargo or containers, and even materials found in sewage or industrial discharges, like tiny pieces of plastic.

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. Other items are accidentally or deliberately discharged at sea. (Source: EPA Trash Free Waters website).

What Is the Impact of Marine Debris?

The problems associated with marine debris extend well beyond aesthetics.

  • Sea birds, 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 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 You 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 You Learn More?

  • 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 Program - 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 web page 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 Marine Debris Coordinating Committee Reports - This NOAA committee periodically submits reports to the U.S. Congress on this issue.
  • 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.
  • Take Our Quiz: The Trash Most Likely to Litter a Beach - This New York Times article from June 26, 2018, discusses the most frequently found item on beaches around the world during the annual International Coastal Cleanup.
  • Massive North Atlantic Garbage Patch Mapped - This Wired article from August 19, 2010, talks about the Atlantic Garbage Patch—an area in the middle of the ocean where plastic debris collects.
  • 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.
  • Marine Debris Creative Advocacy Competition - Now that you've learned more, you can teach others! Check out this international Bow Seat competition for middle and high school students to develop creative advocacy campaigns to reduce marine debris.

Additional Resources for Where Can You Learn More?

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