Marine litter is defined as any solid material which has been deliberately discarded or unintentionally lost on beaches, on shores or at sea. The definition covers 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.
Originating from sources both on land and at sea, marine litter comprises a wide range of materials, including plastic, metal, wood, rubber, glass and paper, however it is dominated by plastic which accounts for up to 90% of the items found on beaches in the OSPAR Maritime 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 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 with over 900 different species documented as being affected. In the North Sea region during the period 2010-2016 95% of Northern Fulmars had plastic in their stomachs and 56% 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.
Monitoring and Assessment
OSPAR currently assesses beach litter, seabed litter, plastic particles in fulmar stomachs and, from 2019, litter ingested by sea turtles indicators, as part of its monitoring and assessment programme. These allow the abundance, trends and composition of marine litter in the OSPAR Maritime Area to be determined for different marine compartments (floating, seafloor and coast).
OSPAR is currently also working to develop new indicators, including microplastics in sediments. The microplastics indicator will address levels in marine sediments and will cover the whole OSPAR Maritime Area.
OSPAR action plan for marine 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 is being implemented over the period 2014-2021.
More information about the plan and details on progress on the fulfillment of its 23 national actions and 32 collective actions, please visit our Marine Litter Regional Action Plan page.
ICG Marine Litter
OSPAR's work on Marine Litter is coordinated through the Intersessional Correspondence Group on Marine Litter (ICG ML)