CZ-Tip - Recycle to Reduce Marine Debris

Find ways to get to, protect, and enjoy the coast with tips from the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM).

Your local beach is a great place to relax, recharge—and recycle! Next time you spread a towel on your favorite patch of sand, take note of what else you might find there. Mixed in to even the cleanest of beaches are signs of human use: forgotten treasures, pieces of picnics past, and trash that started its journey far from the coastline. The man-made objects that gather on our shorelines are classified as “marine debris,” and if they are not disposed of properly, they can pose a serious threat to humans and marine animals alike.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines marine debris as “any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or the Great Lakes.” Marine debris thus takes many shapes and forms, and can be as tiny as a grain of sand or as large as a refrigerator.

So, what can you do to help prevent marine debris? Here are the top 5 items found on beaches worldwide during the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup, with some easy tips on how to reduce, reuse, or recycle each one.

Top 5 Items

#1 - Cigarettes/Cigarette Filters

Reduce: Despite a long-standing myth to the contrary, cigarettes are not entirely biodegradable. The butts are made of cellulose acetate, a form of plastic that can persist in the environment for decades—which is why some millions of them are found during the International Coastal Cleanup every year. Since cigarettes are highly toxic to marine life (see this study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information), this is bad news for ocean and coastal animals. Reducing cigarette litter is the number one way to prevent this incredibly common marine debris. Don’t throw cigarettes on the ground, where they are often washed into storm drains and end up on a local beach. Once a cigarette is fully extinguished, dispose of it in a trash can with a lid and that can’t be knocked over.

Recycle: The city of Salem has become the first municipality in Massachusetts to recycle cigarette butts. (See this Massachusetts Municipal Association announcement for details.) The butts collected by this innovative program are melted down and recycled into plastic products like shipping pallets.

#2 - Food wrappers/containers

Reduce: Instead of buying individual packets of your favorite lunch snack, buy a larger bag and divide it up into reusable containers to cut back on food wrapping and packaging. Avoid single-use materials like cling wrap, and instead package food in a sealable, reusable container. You can also cut down on food containers by treating yourself to a night out—eat at your favorite restaurant instead of ordering in, and bring your own containers for leftovers.

Reuse: Rigid, clear plastic food containers are made of #5 plastic, or polypropylene, which can be reused safely. These containers are therefore great for bringing lunch to work or school, though heating #5 plastic is not recommended.

Recycle: Containers made of #5 plastic are recyclable through most curbside recycling programs. Food wrappers made of #4 plastic (low-density polyethylene) can be recycled at some grocery stores. Cling wraps and other food waste made of #3 plastic, polyvinyl chloride, are the most difficult plastic to recycle; it’s better to try to reduce your use of this plastic to keep it from becoming marine debris.

#3 - Plastic beverage bottles

Reduce: There are thousands of reusable bottle options to choose from, made of everything from flexible plastic to metal to glass, in every color and style. By choosing a reusable bottle for your beverage of choice, you not only cut down on disposable plastic bottles that can wash into the ocean, but save hundreds of dollars every year. (Check the numbers from Statistic Brain Research Institute.) If you’re a soda drinker, a one-time purchase of a home soda maker can provide years of your favorite bubbly drinks for little more than the cost of water and sugar, and create an opportunity to experiment with new flavors (see this New York Times article for ideas).

Recycle: Clear plastic beverage bottles, like soda, sport drink, and water bottles, are made of #1 plastic, polyethylene terephthalate or PETE. This plastic is recyclable through most curbside programs. Milk bottles, some water bottles, and non-beverage plastic bottles (like those for shampoo, soaps, detergents, and bleaches) are composed of #2 plastic, high-density polyethylene, and are also accepted through most curbside programs.

#4 - Plastic bags

Reduce: As with beverage bottles, a buffet of choices is available to swap your plastic grocery bags for more ocean-friendly options. Reusable bags not only shrink the number of plastic bags that end up in the trash, but also hold much more groceries than the average plastic bag—reducing the number of trips you have to take to the car! Most grocery stores offer reusable bags at checkout, and others can be purchased in convenience stores or online.

Reuse: You might be surprised at what old plastic bags can become—the only limit is your creativity. Care2 shared 18 great ways to reuse and up-cycle plastic bags for crafts, cats, concerts, and much more. For more ideas, see CZ-Tip - Repurposing with a Purpose.

Recycle: Plastic bags are made of either #2 plastic, high-density polyethylene, or #4 plastic, low-density polyethylene. While curbside service does not accept plastic bags, most grocery stores will take these materials for recycling.

#5 - Caps & lids

Reduce: Lids from plastic containers can easily get lost and end up in the trash, creating marine debris and endless frustration at not being able to find the right top for your lunch container. Keep your blood pressure down and your beaches clean by punching holes in the lid and body of plastic containers and attaching them together with a keychain ring. Plastic bottles often become separated from their caps when thrown out, making it easy for them to fall out of trash bags, wash into gutters, and wander down to the seashore. You can reduce the number of plastic tops that end up in the environment by cutting down on the number of plastic bottles you use. Choose a reusable bottle instead to cap off this easily solved marine debris issue.

Recycle: Beverage bottle caps and lids from plastic takeout containers are usually made of #5 plastic, which can be recycled through most curbside programs.

More About Recycling and Marine Debris

Don’t know where to recycle a specific item? You can enter your zip code to check where you can recycle everything from computers to grass clippings near you with Earth911’s recycling search tool.

According to data from the Trash Free Waters Program, some 80% of marine debris found at cleanups comes from land-based sources: landfills, construction sites, trash cans, and individuals. Starting at home is therefore the best way to keep the types of the trash discussed above—and lots more—from becoming marine debris. Dispose of all items in a trash can or recycling bin, and ensure that they stay there by securing the container with a lid and making sure it can’t be knocked over. Flimsy trash like bags and wrappers can be caught by the wind in an open receptacle, while heavier items can end up in sewers if knocked over by animals or bad weather.

For more resources on stopping marine debris before it starts, see the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) How and Where to Recycle page. Boston residents can check the recycling schedule for their neighborhood and find out what items can be recycled through the new Boston Trash Day app or online option.

You can also reduce coastal trash by volunteering at COASTSWEEP, the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management’s annual beach cleanup. COASTSWEEP volunteers not only clean up the shore—they provide valuable data to the Ocean Conservancy's International Coastal Cleanup. Find out more information and how to get involved at the COASTSWEEP website.

Preventing Marine Debris While on the Water

Worried about creating debris while on the water? Many items used in marine recreation can accidentally end up becoming marine debris. To prevent fishing gear from getting wrapped around boat propellers, entangling animals, or ghost fishing, always collect and dispose of snagged fishing lines and remove any out-of-use pots and nets from the water. You can also follow these BoatU.S. Instructions to build a monofilament line salvage station and start a recycling program at your favorite fishing spot.

If you’re a boater, ask your local marina about recycling plastic boat wrap; many companies also allow you to mail in your shrink wrap to be recycled for a small fee. You can also skip the shrink wrap altogether and opt for using reusable tarps to protect your boat over the winter. For more, see this CZ-Tip on Clean Boating.


Claudia Geib, CZM’s 2015 COASTSWEEP Intern and the author of multiple CZ-Tips, and COASTSWEEP blogs, holds undergraduate degrees from Northeastern University in Journalism and Environmental Science. In fall 2015, she entered the Masters program in Science Journalism at MIT. Claudia is also a scuba diver and underwater COASTSWEEP cleanup coordinator.

For more of Claudia’s tips, see:

CZ-Tip - Public Transportation by Boat in the Bay State - 6/1/16

Removing Plastic from Rockport’s Reefs with COASTSWEEP - blog, 10/13/15

CZ-Tip - Scuba Diving in Massachusetts - 10/1/15

Calling All Treasure Hunters: Join a COASTSWEEP Cleanup This Fall - blog, 9/8/15

Seeking Local Beach Cleanup Coordinators for COASTSWEEP 2015 - blog, 7/16/15


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