Marine Debris

Marine debris is any manmade material that is improperly disposed of that ends up in lakes, waterways, and the ocean. Every year, up to 8 million metric tons of plastic enters our ocean, on top of the estimated 150 million metric tons that currently circulate in our marine environments. Plastic production and consumption are predicted to double over the next 10 years. It has been estimated that up to 12.7 million metric tons of waste entered the ocean in 2012, and that number is expected to increase by an order of magnitude if waste management infrastructure improvements are not implemented by 2025.

Source Countries

Up to 80% of marine debris originates from land-based sources. Much of the debris within US waters does not originate from the Americas. Waste management challenges, particularly in developing countries, account for a large portion of marine debris. The majority of waste is coming from rapidly developing countries in Asia that lack waste management infrastructure.

Although the U.S. is not the largest contributor to marine debris, recycling programs and rates have room for improvement; U.S. recycling rates are similar to those in developing countries. More investments and public-private partnerships should focus on consumer awareness, the development of more recyclable materials, and recycling infrastructure in both developing and developed countries.


Plastic has been found in more than 60% of all seabirds and in 100% of sea turtle species, which mistake plastic for food. So much consumed plastic is ending up in the ocean that in just a few years, we could end up with a pound of plastic for every three pounds of fish in the sea.

In addition to the larger pieces of debris, microplastics are becoming a major concern that is not well understood. Microplastics have several sources, but all need more research to determine their primary source and ultimate impact on the marine environment.

Marine debris is not only an environmental issue, but also a health and economic one. Plastics are able to absorb, concentrate, and deliver toxic compounds to marine species that accidentally consume plastics, which can then travel up the food chain into larger fish that humans consume. Marine debris can also impact beach tourism and the commercial and recreational fishing industry.