Marine litter covers any solid material which has been deliberately discarded, or unintentionally lost on beaches and on shores or at sea, including materials transported into the marine environment from land by rivers, draining or sewage systems or winds. It includes any persistent, manufactured or processed solid material.
Marine litter originates from different sea- and land-based sources and is largely based on the prevailing production and consumption pattern. Marine litter consists of a wide range of materials, including plastic, metal, wood, rubber, glass and paper, however it is dominated by plastic which accounts for 80% of the items found on beaches in the OSPAR area.
A similar predominance of plastics is reported from sampling at the sea surface and on the seabed. Most plastics are extremely durable materials and persist in the marine environment for a considerable period, possibly as much as hundreds of years. However, plastics also deteriorate and fragment in the environment as a consequence of exposure to sunlight (photo-degradation) in addition to physical and chemical deterioration. This breakdown of larger items results in numerous tiny plastic fragments, which, when smaller than 5mm are called micro plastics. Some plastics of this size are also produced either for direct use, such as for industrial abrasives or cosmetics or for indirect use, such as pre-production pellets or nurdles.
Impacts of Marine Litter
Entanglement in, or ingestion of, marine litter can have negative consequences on the physical condition of marine species and 663 have been documented as being affected, a 40% increase since 1997. In the North Sea region during the period 2007-2011 95% of Northern Fulmars had plastic in their stomachs and 62% exceeded the 0.1 gram objective.
Ingestion of micro plastics is also of concern as it may provide a pathway for transport of harmful chemicals into the food web. Additionally, marine litter is known to damage and degrade habitats (e.g. in terms of smothering) and to be a possible vector for the transfer of alien species.
Marine Litter also has significant economic cost for a range of marine industries, such as: aquaculture, fisheries, harbours, industrial seawater users, marinas, municipalities, power stations, rescue services, shipping and water authorities. These costs can include cleaning, blockages, entanglement and contamination. The social impacts of marine litter relate to the ways in which marine litter affects people’s quality of life and include reduced recreational opportunities and loss of aesthetic value.
The OSPAR objective with regard to marine litter, as laid down in the Strategy for the protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic for the years 2010-2020, is “to substantially reduce marine litter in the OSPAR maritime area to levels where properties and quantities do not cause harm to the marine environment”.
This OSPAR objective is in line with the definition of Descriptor 10 of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, where Good Environmental Status can be seen to be achieved, when “Properties and quantities of marine litter do not cause harm to the coastal and marine environment.
In order to be able to assess the impact of marine litter OSPAR undertakes monitoring of litter in three marine compartments: beach litter, seabed litter and in fulmars' stomachs in the North Sea. These indicators give information on the amount, type and trends of marine litter in the North East Atlantic.
Actions to Reduce litter
In 2014 OSPAR agreed to develop a Regional Action Plan for Marine Litter, along with an implementation plan, in order to achieve its objective to significantly reduce amounts of marine litter. The RAP focuses on both sea-based and land-based sources of litter, as well as considering removal actions and education and outreach. It will be implemented over the period 2014-2021.
ICG Marine Litter
OSPAR's work on Marine Litter is coordinated through the Intersessional Correspondence Group on Marine Litter (ICG ML)