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 94% of the items found on beaches in the OSPAR Maritime Area. Our latest assessment of abunance, composition and trends in marine litter shows that over the last six years, significant decreases in litter and plastic abundance have been observed on beaches bordering the North-East Atlantic (The OSPAR Maritime Area) but levels remain high.
Single-use plastics (SUP) and maritime-related plastic items (SEA) have been directly targeted by OSPAR’s Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter (ML RAP) 2014-2020, e.g., plastic bags, cigarette filters, cotton bud sticks, hunting cartridges, and balloons.
OSPAR has recently published its first ever assessment of marine litter ingested by sea turtles. Based on necropsies of 182 loggerhead turtles obtained from 1988 to 2019 in the Southern OSPAR area, the results showed that there is a high incidence of litter ingestion by sea turtles in the Bay of Biscay, Azores and Macaronesia.
To substantially reduce marine litter, it will be necessary to continue current efforts and to take additional measures.
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 focused on both sea-based and land-based sources of litter, as well as considering removal actions and education and outreach. Implementation of the 2014 RAP-ML was completed in June 2021. At that point OSPAR Contracting Parties had completed 25 out of the 32 collective actions; 3 were still in progress and 4 had been set aside. An extensive evaluation of the impacts and effectiveness of the 2014 RAP-ML was published in 2021.
In 2022 OSPAR adopted a second RAP-ML (RAP-ML 2) which sets out the policy context for OSPAR’s work to address marine litter within the North-East Atlantic and directly contributes to delivering the marine litter objectives of the North-East Atlantic Environment Strategy 2030. The RAP-ML 2 describes priority thematic areas and defines key actions where the OSPAR Commission can best contribute to tackling this ubiquitous challenge.
ICG Marine Litter
OSPAR's work on Marine Litter is coordinated through the Intersessional Correspondence Group on Marine Litter (ICG ML)