Marine Litter: Threat to Marine Biodiversity

Marine Litter: Threat to Marine Biodiversity

By: V Sampath
Comprising plastics and other non-degradable solid waste, marine litter drifts around the global oceans posing a serious threat to marine habitats, as also human health and safety. Since legal mechanisms are not yet in place, existing mechanisms ought to be used as a framework to build on for protecting the oceanic realm.
English Free Article Pollution

Marine and other aquatic litter/debris is the world’s most pervasive pollution problem along shorelines, coastal waters, estuaries, and oceans throughout the world, affecting our seas and waterways. Marine litter consists primarily of plastics and non-degradable substances, which inevitably accumulate in the environment, causing an ever-growing problem. The threat and impact of marine debris have long been ignored. The trash that drifts around the global oceans and washes up on shores, can pose a serious threat to fisheries, marine biodiversity and human health.

Oceans are at the receiving end for solid waste generated over land as well as the oceans. Only a fraction of the solid waste generated is collected; while the rest gets dumped in open areas. Solid waste dumped into seas comes from shipping, commercial fisheries, and other offshore activities. According to United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), ship-generated solid waste, especially marine litter, comprises 80 per cent of the total solid waste in coastal and marine areas (UNEP, 1995).

It is reported that about 44000 cum of domestic sewage and 440 cum of industrial wastes are discharged every year into the seas of India (GoI, 2016). The quantity of solid waste generated by the coastal population of India is about 2000 tonnes per day, an average of 0.5 kg/person/day for a population of 4 million living along the 7500 km coastline (SACEP, 2007).

Worldwide, as many as 8 million items of garbage, was reported to be entering the seas on a daily basis in 1995 (Benton, 1995). Another report claimed that 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic, weighing 269,000 tonnes, was getting distributed across the oceans (Howard, 2014).

Plastic debris originate from a wide and diverse range of sources. Much of what is found at sea originates on the land. It is ‘estimated that over 13,000 pieces of plastic litter floats over every square kilometre of the ocean today’ (UNEP, 2005). It is also estimated that the ocean receives between 5 and 12 million tonnes of plastics from land-based sources annually and constitute approximately 20.7 per cent of litter dumped in the marine environment (Ocean Conservancy, 2015).

The problem of marine litter is compounded further by river and storm water drains discharging garbage from the hinterland. Anthropogenic activities at sea such as commercial fishing vessels, recreational boats and cruise ships; cargo and research vessels and passenger ships also contribute to the growing litter at sea.

Status of Marine Litter in India

From the available data, it could be inferred that the major sources of marine pollution including debris/litter are domestic/industrial waste, ports and harbours including fishing harbours and landing centres, ship-breaking yards, fish/food processing industries, tourist resorts/beaches, solid waste dumping, urban runoff, oil rigs, coastal aquaculture, fishing industry including fishing gear, shipping—including garbage from ships, recreational and leisure activities, marine mining and construction activities along the coasts (SACEP, 2007).

During the last 2-3 decades, there has been growing concern in the world due to an increase in the quantity of litter in the marine environment. Surveys have indicated that nearly 80 per cent of marine debris originate from land-based activities (UNEP, 1995). This increase is a result of the fast development of extensive and unplanned use of plastic materials. However, plastics are not the only persistent material discarded into the sea. There are a variety of others too, such as metal, lumber, glass, rubber, styrofoam, cloth, and foam rubber.

The types of marine litter in India (SACEP, 2007) reported, include:

  • Plastics (fragments, sheets, bags, containers)
  • Polystyrene (cups, packaging, buoys)
  • Rubber (gloves, boots, tyre
  • Wood (construction timber, pellets, plywood, fragments of both)
  • Metals (drink cans, oil drums, aerosol containers, scrap)
  • Sanitary or sewage related debris (tampons, diapers, condoms, faeces)
  • Paper and cardboard
  • Cloth (clothing, furnishings, shoes)
  • Glass (bottles, light bulbs)
  • Pottery/Ceramic
  • Monofilament fishing line
  • Waxed milk carton
  • Fruit peel
  • Cigarettes, cigarette fibre, lighters, cigar tips, and other tobacco related packaging/wrappers
  • Used batteries, Building materials, Fishing lines, floats, marking buoys and abandoned cut pieces of used nets.

There is no information/data available on the trash flowing in the open oceans and submerged marine litter/debris, as no systematic monitoring/sighting of such debris has so far been undertaken in the Indian seas, although stray instances of entanglement of fish and endangered marine fauna are reported from Indian waters.

Even though periodical coastal clean-up operations are carried out in India, no effort has so far been made to either assess the costs involved in such operations or damage to the ecosystem, tourism, public health and safety due to coastal and marine litter in our seas.

Impact of Marine Litter

The threat and impacts of marine debris have long been ignored. Plastics are now found inside animals throughout the ocean food chain—from mussels to fish to sea turtles to whales (Ocean Conservancy, 2015). While marine debris is a global problem requiring international cooperation, many of its negative impacts are experienced at the local level and can easily be dealt with, through local involvement.

After assessing the report of the South Asian Co-operative Environment Programme on Marine Litter in the South Asian Seas Region, the following are the social, physical, biological and economic ramifications of marine debris (SACEP, 2007) :

  • Social: Human health is affected in many ways. Broken glasses, ropes and lines dangling in the ocean can pose a threat to beach goers, boaters and divers. Disposal of biomedical waste into the seas causes outbreaks of cholera and hepatitis among coastal populations. Of late, outbreaks of cholera and infectious hepatitis are occurring with increasing frequency among coastal populations.
  • Physical: Litter in the seas can affect marine waters and sediment quality.
  • Biological: Marine debris can affect marine life, especially endangered species that thrive in coastal waters. Fish, turtles and sea birds can die through entanglement and ingestion.
  • Economic: Beach clean-up exercises are an expensive affair. However, every time a beach was cleaned by NGOs in Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu, the same quantity of waste was dumped on the shore in a week’s time. Lack of awareness on the part of people, and the indifferent attitude of local municipalities towards the collection and disposal of untreated/partially treated liquid and solid wastes in smaller towns have caused large-scale pollution of our marine coasts. This has destroyed fisheries, and resulted in the proliferation of deadly jellyfish which can attack those venturing into coastal waters. The repeated clean-up of the beach not only involves huge manpower but also sizeable expenditure is incurred in engaging people from the coastal community for collection and disposal of wastes/litter in an organised manner.

Legal Mechanisms

Marine litter was identified as one of the nine categories that needed to be dealt with under the Global Programme of Action (GPA) for the ‘Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities’ (UNEP, 2005). Decision 59/22 of November 10, 2004 on ‘Oceans and the Law of the Sea’ had recommended that marine debris be included in discussions of the United Nations Consultative Process on the Law of the Sea (UNICPOLOS) as well as in the 2004 UN Secretary General’s Report. The issue of marine litter and the destructive effects of abandoned fishing gear were further emphasised in resolution 59/25 of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on November 17, 2004 on ‘Oceans and the Law of the Sea’–‘Sustainable Fisheries’ (UNGA, 2005).

There is no legal mechanism/framework or policies specifically to deal with the management of marine litter. Existing mechanisms in place, however, are an umbrella framework for environmental protection and management.

Noting the lack of data on marine debris, UNGA Resolution A/60/L.22, ‘Oceans and the Law of the Sea’ of November 29, 2005 in articles 65-70 ‘encourages relevant national and international organisations to undertake further studies on the extent and nature of the problem, also encourages States to develop partnerships with industry and civil society to raise awareness on the extent of the impact of marine debris on the health and productivity of the marine environment and consequent economic loss’ (UNGA, 2006). It also calls for national, regional and global action to address the problem of marine litter. It ‘urges States to integrate the issue of marine debris within national strategies dealing with waste management in the coastal zone, ports and maritime industries, including recycling, reuse, reduction and disposal; encourages the development of appropriate economic incentives to address this issue, including the development of cost recovery systems that provide an incentive to use port reception facilities and discourage ships from discharging marine debris at sea; and encourages States to cooperate regionally and sub-regionally to develop and implement joint prevention and recovery programmes for marine debris’ (UNGA, 2006).

In response to the GPA call, UNEP (GPA and the Regional Seas Programme), took an active lead through its ‘Global Initiative on Marine Litter’ to address the challenge, by assisting 11 regional seas around the world (Baltic Sea, Black Sea, Caspian Sea, East Asian Seas, Eastern Africa, Mediterranean Sea, Northwest Pacific, Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, South Asian Seas, Southeast Pacific, and Wider Caribbean), in organising and implementing regional activities on marine litter.

Considering the magnitude and severity of the problem, and in line with the UNGA Resolutions, UNEP/Regional Seas Programme has been developing activities relevant to the marine litter issue in consultation and in co-operation with UN Agencies, such as the International Maritime Organisation (IMO); Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO; the Secretariat of the Basel Convention; the Mediterranean Action Plan and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO). One such programme is a ‘Feasibility Study on Sustainable Management of Marine Litter’ (UNEP, 2005).

End Note

In the absence of laws to deal with marine litter, it is important to fall back on existing mechanisms and organise an international action plan to tackle the problem, using local agencies at the ground-level. A move has already been made through the UN agencies; sustained follow-up action at the regional and sub-regional level will be needed to protect local populations from the impact of marine litter on their health, general well-being and livelihoods.


Benton, T.G. (1995). From castaways to throwaways: marine litter in the Pitcairn Islands. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 56(1-2), 415-422.

C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre, Ministry of Environment & Forests, GoI. (2016) Solid Waste Management. Retrieved from

Howard, B.C. (2014, December 13). 5 trillion pieces of ocean trash found, but fewer particles than expected. National Geographic. Retrieved from

SACEP. (2007). Marine litter in the south Asian Seas region. A Report by the South Asia Co-operative Environment Programme. pIX, pX, p128, p64. Retrieved from

The Ocean Conservancy. (2015). Trash free Seas Every Piece, Every Person 2015 Report . p2, p10. Retrieved from .

UNEP. (1995). Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities (UNEP (OCA) /LBA/IG.2/7). p54, p4. Retrieved from

UNEP. (2005). Marine Litter. An analytical overview. UNEP, Nairobi. p21, p4, p58, pII, pIII. Retrieved from

UNGA. (2005, November 17). Resolution Adopted by the General Assembly. Fifty-ninth Session. Agenda Item 49 (b). A/RES/59/25. p12, p12. Retrieved from

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