Global Policy Forum

Oceans Fast Becoming a Garbage Dump


By Author Marina Litvinsky


June 9, 2009

The growing problem of marine litter is harming oceans and beaches worldwide and authorities must act now to reverse and prevent further environmental degradation, said a report released Monday, World Oceans Day.

The new report "Marine Litter: A Global Challenge" is a result of a collaboration between the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Ocean Conservancy. It is the first-ever attempt to take stock of the marine litter situation in 12 major regional seas. The 12 regional seas included in the report are Baltic Sea, Black Sea, Caspian Sea, East Asian Seas, East African Seas, Mediterranean, Northeast Atlantic, Northwest Pacific, Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, South Asian Seas, South Pacific, and Wider Caribbean.

"This is a major problem that is getting worse, not better," said Amy Fraenkel, director of UNEP's Regional Office for North America, at a press conference announcing the report. The report's findings indicate that despite several international, regional, and national efforts to reverse marine pollution, alarming quantities of garbage thrown out to sea continue to endanger people's safety and health, entrap wildlife, damage nautical equipment and deface coastal areas around the world.

"The ocean is our life support system - it provides much of the oxygen we breathe, the food we eat and climate we need to survive - yet trash continues to threaten its health," said Vikki Spruill, president and CEO of Ocean Conservancy. "The bottom line is our ocean is sick and its human activities that have made it so."


Land-based activities are the largest source of marine litter. In Australia, surveys near cities indicate up to 80 percent of marine litter originating from land-based sources, with sea-based sources in the lead in more remote areas. Land-based sources include wastes from dumpsites located on the coast of banks of rivers; rivers and floodwaters; industrial outfalls; discharge from storm water drains; untreated municipal sewerage; littering of beaches and coastal picnic and recreation areas; tourism and recreational use of the coasts; fishing industry activities; ship-breaking yards; and natural storm-related events.

The major sea-based sources of marine litter include shipping and fishing activities; offshore mining and extraction; legal and illegal dumping at sea; abandoned, lost, or otherwise discarded fishing gear; and natural disasters. Key findings include a compilation of the Top Ten Marine Debris items for the period between 1989 and 2007, with cigarette products, paper and plastic bags heading the list.

Plastic, especially plastic bags and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, is the most pervasive type of marine litter around the world, accounting for over 80 percent of all litter collected in several of the regional seas assessed. Plastics can be mistaken as food by numerous animals, including marine mammals, birds, fish, and turtles. A five-year survey of fulmars in the North Sea region found that 95 percent of these seabirds contained plastic in their stomachs. Studies of the Northeast Atlantic plankton have found plastic in samples dating back to the 1960s, with a significant increase in abundance in time.

Smoking-related activities also receive top rankings as sources of marine litter. Ocean Conservancy found that cigarette butts account for 28 percent of littered items washing up on beaches worldwide. Cigarette filters, tobacco packets and cigar tips make up 40 percent of all marine litter in the Mediterranean, while in Ecuador, smoking-related garbage accounted for over half of the total coastal litter "catch" in 2005.

"Marine litter is symptomatic of a wider malaise: namely the wasteful use and persistent poor management of natural resources," said Achim Steiner, UNEP's executive director. "The plastic bags, bottles and other debris piling up in the oceans and seas could be dramatically reduced by improved waste reduction, waste management and recycling initiatives."

The tourism and recreation sector has a significant impact on the state of seas and coastlines around the world. According to the report, in some tourist areas of the Mediterranean, more than 75 percent of the annual waste production is generated during the summer season. Shoreline activities account for 58 percent of the marine litter in the Baltic Sea region, and almost half in Japan and the Republic of Korea.


Marine litter can cause serious economic losses through damaged boats, fishing gear, contamination of tourism, and agriculture facilities. For example, in Britain, 92 percent of Shetland fishermen reported recurring problems with debris in nets, and it has been estimated that each boat could lose between 10,500 and 53,300 dollars per year due to the presence of marine litter. The cost to the local industry could then be as high as 4.3 million dollars.

Currently, port authorities sometimes discourage ships from bringing their galley waste back to shore - as seen in the East Asian Seas region where ships are charged on a fee-for-service (user pays) basis. Some vessel operators therefore opt to dispose of their garbage at sea - at no cost. The report advocates adopting a "no special fee" approach to port waste reception facilities, as pioneered in the Baltic Sea region, as this can substantially decrease the number of operational and illegal discharges and help prevent pollution from ships to the marine environment.  Reviewing the level of fines for ocean dumping to make them a sufficient deterrent is also needed. For example, in the U.S. the cruise ship Regal Princess was fined 500,000 dollars in 1993 for dumping 20 bags of garbage into the sea.

"The time for action is now," said Philippe Cousteau, CEO of EarthEcho International and Ocean Conservancy board member. "There are solutions that everyone, everywhere in the world, can adopt to make a positive difference for our water planet."

The report recommends each Regional Sea Programme develop a long-term, sustainable regional action plan or strategy to address the problem of marine litter, either within the framework of their regional convention or protocol, or as an independent instrument and document.

Marine litter is a global problem and mitigation actions should be developed around a global framework, coordinated at the regional level and implemented at the national level through development and implementation of these plans contends the report.


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