Solid Waste and Marine Litter Management
What is marine litter?
Scientists define marine litter (debris) as “any manufactured or processed solid waste material (typically inert) that enters the marine environment from any source.” It is more than an unsightly inconvenience for beach-bound vacationers or pleasure boaters; it is one of the world’s most pervasive pollution problems affecting our oceans and inland waterways. Any manufactured material can become marine litter. Cigarette filters, fishing line, fast-food packaging, disposable diapers, tampon applicators, six-pack holders, bottles, cans, syringes, and tires – the litany of litter is as varied as the products available in the global marketplace.
Why is marine litter a problem?
Litter collecting on our beaches detracts from the aesthetic beauty of a waterfront landscape and negatively affects tourism. Litter can also be a human health and safety hazard. Discarded fishing line, rope and plastic bags can wrap around and damage boat propellers, or be sucked into boat engines. Medical wastes and drug paraphernalia lying on beaches can carry diseases, and broken glass and other sharp objects lie in wait for a child’s bare foot. Marine litter can also cause habitat destruction by affecting water quality and causing physical damage. Coral reefs are very susceptible to the impacts of marine litter as well as sea grass beds and bottom-dwelling species in these habitats. Many wildlife often have lethal encounters with marine litter. Many species accidentally ingest trash, mistaking it for their food. Abandoned fishing nets and gear, discarded fishing line and other forms of debris can entangle marine wildlife – sea turtles, manatees, sea birds, and fish – maiming or even killing them.
Where does marine litter come from?
All marine litter originates from human activity. People produce waste, and if waste is not handled appropriately it will, in all likelihood, become litter. Marine litter originates primarily from two distinct sources, the sea (and inland waterways) and the land. Ocean/inland waterways-based sources include boats and ships, from the smallest sailboat to the largest container ship, along with offshore rigs and drilling platforms. The land-based sources include combined sewer overflows and storm drains, landfills, manufacturing and sewage treatment plants, and beachgoers. Once in the water, litter can end up thousands of miles from its origin carried by the wind, ocean currents and tides. Although most litter items are hard to trace back to their source, one fact is clear: marine litter ultimately comes from people, not places. Determining where marine litter originates is not an easy task, since trash can travel long distances before washing up on a beach or sinking to the bottom of the ocean. One approach is to focus programming efforts on the “activities” that are known to produce marine litter:
– Recreational and Shoreline Activities: indiscriminate and intentional littering by beachgoers, picnickers, participants at sports and festival events, and litter carried from inland streets and storm/sewer drains
– Ocean and Waterways Activities: improper handling of solid wastes from recreational fishing/boating, commercial fishing and shipping, military ships, cruise ships, and oil and gas offshore rigs
– Smoking-related Activities: improper disposal and littering of smoking-related materials and packaging by smokers
– Dumping-related Activities: improper disposal of building/construction materials, cars and car parts, and household appliances
– Medical/Personal Hygiene: discarded materials into sewer systems, dumped into storm drains (along roadways and culverts), toilets, and left by beachgoers
By focusing on these documented activities as primary sources of marine litter, prevention strategies can be developed to educate the public as to the problems associated with marine litter and how to prevent it. The only way that we are going to be able to manage this pollution issue is to change people’s behaviours in how they handle trash, concurrently working to increase the effectiveness of public education and enforcement of regulations related to litter and dumping.
Marine Litter Data
Data from the International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) collected in the Caribbean Region (2000-2004):
- 62.8% Shoreline/Recreational Activities (LBS)
- 8.3% Ocean/Waterway Activities (OBS)
- 25.9% Smoking Activities (LBS)
- 2.1% Dumping Activities (LBS)
- 0.9% Medical/Personal Hygiene (LBS)
The dominant source of debris documented in the ICC data from the Caribbean Region is land-based-LBS (91.7%). Ocean-based (OBS) debris comes in at 8.3%.
Land-based sources of debris are documented to have a profound impact on tourism (and other economic indicators) and human health and safety. Ocean-based debris forms (e.g. fishing nets, gear and supplies, rope, fish traps, sheeting/tarps, and strapping bands) can also be harmful to wildlife (entanglement and ingestion) and damaging to sensitive aquatic habitats like coral reefs and sea grass beds.
What is being done?
In 2007, UNEP Regional Seas, UNEP-CAR/RCU, LBS Regional Activity Centres IMA (Trinidad and Tobago) and CIMAB (Cuba) in consultation with regional coastal experts, governments and community stakeholders developed a 'Regional Action Plan for the Sustainable Management of Marine Litter'(RAPMaLi).
The RAPMaLi was preceded by the preparation of a detailed Regional Overview document that summarized the status of Marine Litter in the Wider Caribbean Sea Region including a review of the relevant regional and national legal instruments, programmes and institutional arrangements
Following the development of the RAPMaLi pilot projects were implemented in Barbados, Guyana and St. Lucia.
The RAPMaLi was updated in 2014 to more closely allign with the Global Partnership for Marine Litter and the Honolulu Strategy and Action Plan. It also takes into account emerging issues relating to the management of plastics and microplastics.