Solid Waste and Marine Litter


According to the Caribbean Community Secretariat (2003) the quantity of waste is closely linked to the level of economic activity in a country. Wealthier economies tend to produce more waste. The lack of land areas and resources available for the safe disposal of wastes, population growth, the growing tourism industry, and the increase in imports of polluting and hazardous substances combine to make pollution prevention and waste management a critical issue in most Caribbean States.

People generate solid wastes such as food and kitchen wastes, paper, glass, metal and plastic containers and packaging, construction wastes (bricks, tiles, concrete, rebar, lumber, sheeting, etc.), clothing, and hazardous wastes (medications, batteries, paints, chemicals, etc) and if not handled appropriately (recycled or disposed of properly) have the potential to become litter. Marine litter or debris is any persistent, manufactured or processed solid material discarded, disposed of or abandoned in the marine and coastal environment from any source (, Coe & Rogers 1997).

Marine litter can be classified into land- or ocean/waterway-based, depending on how the debris enters the water (UNEP 2008). Land-based sources include dumps/landfills, riverine transport, untreated sewage and storm water discharges, industrial and manufacturing facilities, tourism, and beach-goers. Sea-/ocean-based sources of marine litter include fishing vessels, cruise liners, merchant shipping, military and research vessels, pleasure crafts, oil/gas platforms, and fish farming (



Marine litter is an environmental, economic, health and aesthetic problem affecting all regions around the world (UNEP 2005b, UNEP 2006a).



Entanglement and ingestion of marine litter is directly damaging wildlife and the environment in which they live. Marine litter can cause habitat destruction including smothering of the seabed, entangled litter on coral reefs and deposition on seagrass beds. According to Chiappone et al. (2002), fishing gear (hooks and lines) and debris from lobster traps causes damage to the coral reefs in the Florida Keys. Furthermore, alien species may use the transport mechanism of marine debris in the ocean to migrate into new areas and disturb the ecosystem.



Marine litter along beautiful beaches and waterways destroy the beauty and enjoyment of those areas, and hence, negatively affect tourism and the economical benefits they bring. Maintaining the beauty of these areas also costs time and money for both the private and public sectors.  Ghost fishing, which is when fisheries are accidentally caught in abandoned or lost fishing gear, nets and pots, can also lead to economic losses for fisheries. According to Joint Nature Conservation Committee (2005), $250 million of marketable lobster is lost in the United States annually to ghost fishing.


Human Health & Safety

Discarded fishing line, rope and plastic trash or food bags can disable boats and ships by wrapping around boat propellers or being sucked into outboard boat engines. Medical wastes and drug paraphernalia dumped or transported onto beaches by winds and waves can threaten public health through disease transmission and broken glass and other sharp objects can harm humans – especially young children.


Global versus Caribbean Studies on Waste and Marine Litter

Marine litter is found globally in all seas around the world. It often stays buoyant and can travel long distances with ocean currents and winds. In 1997, the U.S. Academy of Sciences estimated that 6.4 million tons of marine litter is deposited in the oceans and seas each year. Eight million items of marine litter are dumped every day and five million of them from ships. According to Moore (2002), the amount of plastic pieces in the Pacific has at least tripled in the last ten years. This study further indicates that a tenfold increase in the next decade is not unreasonable.

In the Ocean Conservancy’s 2007 International Coastal Cleanup (ICC), 378 000 volunteers cleaned 33 000 miles of shoreline worldwide and removed 6 million pounds (2.7 million kg) of debris in one day. The collected debris was tabulated as follows:

  • 57 percent of the debris was related to shoreline recreational activities,
  • 33 percent from smoking-related activities,
  • 6.3 percent from fishing or waterway activities,
  • 2 percent from dumping and
  • less than 1 percent from medical and personal hygiene activities.


Marine litter is a significant pollution issue for the Wider Caribbean region and poses one of the most severe threats to the sustainability of the natural resources of sensitive habitats and wildlife and people of the region (UNEP 2008). The status of the local waste management situation is daunting and most Central American and Caribbean countries do not have adequate landfills and wastes are most often disposed into open-air dumps ( According to UNEP/GPA (2006) household waste continue to be a problem as well as the increased number of tourism resulting in an increase of waste.

According to Pan-American Centre for Sanitary Engineering and Environmental Sciences, 424 000 tons of waste are generated daily in Latin America and the Caribbean, and less then 35 percent is processed into regulated sanitary landfills. This means that, nearly two-thirds or 275 000 tons daily ends up in open-air dumps or local waterways. During storms or coastal flooding events the water can easily bring the waste from the open air dumps and rivers into the sea. The same study shows that more than 100 000 families or 200 000-300 000 children in the region survive through selling dumped material and working in hazardous and unhealthy conditions.

According to UNEP (2005a) solid waste collection coverage in major Caribbean cities varies from 60% to over 90% of the population with the exception of Haiti where it is much lower.

In the small islands in the Caribbean such as the Bahamian family islands, the Virgin Islands and the Grenadines, as well as in other densely populated areas of the Caribbean, there is difficulty locating suitable sites for landfills (UNEP 1999). According to Ivar do Sul and Costa (2007), who conducted a review of existing literature on marine litter from Latin America and the Wider Caribbean Region, during the period 1970-2007, plastics were the most common material reported. The dominating litter source in many areas surveyed (i.e., Colombia, Panama, Puerto Rico, Barbados, Mexico/Yucatán Peninsula, Saint Lucia, and British Virgin Islands) was household trash and litter from recreational activities. Some areas, such as Dominica, for example, had a significant amount of ocean-based litter related to fishing activities.

During the period 1989-2007, a total of 9.3 million pieces of litter were collected during the annual ICC in the Caribbean countries. Of this amount, 90.7% was considered to have a land-based source (LBS) and 9.3% an ocean-based source (OBS).



Shoreline/Recreational Activities (LBS), Ocean/Waterway Activities (OBS), Smoking Activities (LBS), Dumping Activities (LBS), Medical/Personal Hygiene (LBS)

*Compiled from annual Ocean Conservancy, ICC Country Data Reports by Sheavly Consultants, Inc.   


According to the 2004 “GIWA Regional Assessment 3a for the Small Island subsystem”, solid waste management receives low priority when compared to other national needs (CEHI 2003). As a result, many citizens inappropriately dispose their waste into gullies and along riverbanks, which pollutes rivers, streams and ultimately, the coastal waters into which they drain (GEF et al 2001). Solid waste on beaches in this region causes public concern regarding recreational use. Furthermore, there are concerns regarding the high amount of waste generated by the cruise industry.

According to the 2006 “GIWA Regional Assessment 3b and 3c for Colombia, Venezuela, Central America & Mexico”, there is an inadequate collection service for solid waste and the waste management from the tourism sector is particularly weak. In 1990, the National Park Morrocov in Venezuela had to close down after excessive dumping of solid and liquid wastes. This was because existing capacity for waste management services could not cope with the large number of tourists (Windevoxhel 2003). In the region there is evidence of both sea turtle mortality and damaged coral reefs caused by marine litter.

According to the 2004 “GIWA Regional Assessment 4, for the Islands of the Greater Antilles”,, these countries report inadequate solid waste collection systems, and as a result the waste is deposited in mangrove swamps, drainage channels and along riverbanks. This causes permanent and harmful contaminants to leach and seep into the surface, ground and coastal waters, thus degrading the associated ecosystems. According to the GIWA experts, Haiti is the most severely impacted island by solid wastes in the region. According to this study 70-80% of marine debris originates from the shipping traffic in the region. The ports in the region lack waste reception facilities, and many ships dump their wastes at sea, which is then transported to distant locations by winds and currents. Paper and foam are a major transboundary problem in the region. The Bahamas pick up solid wastes from the Lesser Antilles Current. The Florida band, from Key West to Cape Canaveral, is one of the biggest solid waste disposal sites in the Wider Caribbean (UNEP/CEP 1994). In the Bahamas, solid wastes have caused mortalities and reduced the reproductive success of sea turtles, marine mammals, and sea birds (BEST 2002).


Laws, Regulations and Policy Response on Marine Litter

Land-based and ocean-based marine litter are regulated though many different frameworks ranging from regional legislation, international non-binding and binding agreements, to action plans and national legislation and regulations. The widespread nature of marine litter, its transboundary impacts and the difficulties in identifying the sources have made effective laws difficult to draft and even more difficult to enforce.

The most important regional legal framework is the Convention for the Protection and Development of the Marine Environment of the Wider Caribbean Region (Cartagena Convention). The Convention entered into force in 1986 and is a legally binding, regional multilateral environmental agreement for the protection and development of the WCR. It was developed by the countries of the Wider Caribbean and is the only legally binding agreement for the protection of the Caribbean Sea.

The Protocol Concerning Pollution from Land-Based Sources and Activities (LBS Protocol) of the Cartagena Convention is an important framework for combating solid waste at sea (marine litter). Annex I lists Primary Pollutants of Concern which include “persistent synthetic and other materials, including garbage, that float, flow or remain in suspension or settle to the bottom and affect marine life and hamper the uses of the sea”.  Annex II provides parameters for determining how to evaluate wastes, including parameters for 1) the characteristics and composition of the waste, 2) the characteristics of the activity or source category, and 3) alternate production, waste treatment technologies or management practices. Annex III sets acceptable levels of waste concentrations in wastewaters, and says that "floatables" (solids) should not be visible.

Examples of international conventions dealing with marine litter are:


  • 1972 London Dumping Convention or the Convention of the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes. Read more at


  • MARPOL 73/78 is the main international convention covering prevention of pollution of the marine environment by ships from operational or accidental causes. MARPOL has six annexes, covering oil discharge (I), hazardous liquid control (II), hazardous material transport (III), sewage discharge (IV), plastic and garbage disposal (V), and air pollution (VI). Read more at


  • Additional international conventions to be mentioned are UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS); Convention on Migratory Species; Agreements on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels; Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal; FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fishing; Fish Stocks Agreement (UNFSA); Regional Fishery Management Organizations (RFMOs).


Important global action plans are;


  • The Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities (GPA) is a programme that provides guidance for sustainable development of oceans and seas and their resources. Read more at






  • The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are eight goals to be achieved by 2015 that respond to the world's main development challenges. Read more at


For more information read the document International Treaties and Conventions related to marine litter. LINK


What is the Caribbean Environment Programme (CEP) doing?

In 2005, UNEP-CAR/RCU and its Regional Activity Centres for the Land Based Sources of Marine Pollution Protocol and Oil Spills Protocols with support from UNEP Regional Seas began the development of a Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter in the Wider Caribbean. The objective of this activity was to assist in the environmental protection and sustainable management and development of the WCR through the development of a Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter in the Wider Caribbean Sea.

A series of region wide surveys, literature reviews and ICC data were compiled by marine litter researcher and Caribbean Regional Consultant, Seba Sheavly. This assessment was followed by a regional workshop of experts in Aruba in February 2007 which ultimately led to the development of the Caribbean’s first Regional Action Plan for the Sustainable Management of Marine Litter (RAPMaLi) in 2007. The RAPMaLi was designed to addresses the complex and interconnected nature of the marine litter problem and outlines several actions at the National and Regional Level within five thematic areas:

  1. Legislation, policies and enforcement
  2. Institutional framework and stakeholder engagement 
  3. Monitoring programmes and research
  4. Education and outreach
  5. Solid waste management strategies


Documents produced under the Regional Action Plan for the Sustainable Management of Marine Litter (RAPMaLi) are;


  • UNEP, 2008, Marine Litter in the Wider Caribbean Region: A Regional Overview.
  • UNEP, 2005, Marine Litter an analytical overview
  • UNEP, 2006, Marine Litter in the Wider Caribbean
  • Links to the database
  • Recognizing the need to implement these actions outlined within the RAPMaLi , UNEP with support
    from UNEP Regional Seas Programme recently initiated pilot projects within Barbados, St. Lucia and Guyana to improve public awareness and national capacity to manage marine litter. Links or names of the projects)
  • The 2007 International Coastal Clean-up Activity, a component of the Marine Litter Project, was carried out in September 2007.
  • During April 23-25, 2008United Nations Environment Program supported the Ocean Conservancy’s
    International Coastal Cleanup Conference held in Jamaica.  Links to reports from the conference.


For marine litter information collected over the period 1989-2007, click on the relevant country.

What can you do?

Simple ways of taking action:

  • Don’t through any wastes on the ground.
  • Keep streets, sidewalks, parking lots and storm drains free of trash - they can empty into our oceans and waterways.
  • Eliminate open landfills.
  • Recycle whatever possible.
  • Solicit and help establish more and better recycling facilities in your area.
  • Bring your bottles, plastics, and batteries to local recycling companies.
  • Don’t discard cigarettes or other litter on the beach.
  • Reuse plastic bags or preferably use paper or cloth bags for shopping.
  • Do not flush diapers or other items down the toilet.
  • Serve as an example to others and participate in local beach and river cleanup events.
  • Inform and teach kids and adults about the problems associated with waste and marine litter.
  • Don’t dispose garbage and other wastes over board when on boats.
  • Waste should be stored onboard and discharged ashore in a proper reception facility.
  • Fishing gear should be marked to make it possible to find them again if they are lost at sea.

For more information read the document What Can You Do About Marine Litter. LINK




  • BEST, 2002, Bahamas Environmental Handbook, Bahamas Environment Science and Technology Commission, The Government of The Bahamas, Nassau New Providence, The Bahamas
  • CEHI, 2003, Environmental health, Caribbean Environment Health Institute, Taken May 2003 from
  • Chiappone M, White A, Swanson D W, & Miller S L, 2002, Occurrence and biological impacts of fishing gear and other marine debris in the Florida Keys. Marine Pollution Bulletin 44: 597-604
  • Coe J M, & Rodgers D B, 1997, Marine Debris: Sources, Impacts and Solutions, Springer-Verlag: New York
  • GEF/CEHI/CARICOM/UNEP, 2001, Integrating watershed and coastal area management in Small Island Developing States of the Caribbean
  • Global Marine Litter Information Gateway, Taken 2008-03-30 from
  • Goddard G, 1997, Background Paper on Solid Waste Management in Trinidad and Tobago, Environmental Management Authority of Trinidad and Tobago, Port of Spain
  • Greenpeace, 2006 Plastic Debris in the World’s Oceans. Amsterdam Netherlands,
  • Ivar do Sul J A, &.Costa M F, 2007,  Marine debris review for Latin America and the Wider Caribbean Region: From the 1970’s until now, and where do we go from here? Marine Pollution Bulletin 54, pp. 1087-1104
  • Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), 2005, Ghost fishing, Taken 2008-04 10- from
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  • comprehensive list of species with entanglement and ingestion records, In: Marine Debris. Sources, Impacts, Solutions. J M, Coe & Rogers D B, (eds.), Springer-Verlag New York, Inc., pp99-140
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  • UNEP, 1999, Caribbean Environmental Outlook, Mexico
  • UNEP, 2005a, Caribbean Environment Outlook. UNEP, Nairobi, Kenya
  • UNEP, 2005b, Marine Litter an analytical overview, Nairobi Kenya
  • UNEP, 2006a, Marine Litter in the Wider Caribbean, Kingston Jamaica
  • UNEP, 2008, Marine Litter in the Wider Caribbean Region: A Regional Overviewand Action plan,
  • United Nations Environment Programme. 81 pp, Kingston Jamaica
  • UNEP/CEP, 1994, Regional Overview of Land-Based Sources of Pollution in the Wider Caribbean Region, CEP Technical Report No. 33. UNEP Caribbean Environment Programme, Kingston, Jamaica.
  • UNEP/GEF/Kalmar Högskola/Cimab, 2004, Global International Water Assessment (GIWA), Caribbean Islands Bahamas, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico Regional Assessment 4, Kalmar Sweden
  • UNEP/GEF/Kalmar Högskola/Invemar, 2006, Global International Water Assessment (GIWA), Caribbean Sea/Colombia & Venezuela, Central America & Mexico GIWA Regional Assessment 3b, 3c, Kalmar Sweden
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  • UNEP/GPA, 2006, The State of the Marine Environment: Trends and processes, The Hague
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  • UNEP on Marine Litter, Taken 2008-04-13 from
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