The unwanted, thrown-or-washed-away stuff that ends up in the seas and oceans — the marine environment — is sometimes called litter, sometimes debris, or trash or waste. Litter, in the form of plastic bags, beer and soda cans, coffee cups, etc., is unsightly when it is strewn along streets and highways. When some of this land-based litter gets washed into sewers, streams and rivers, and ends up in the marine environment, it takes on a more sinister aspect.

Waste is probably a more useful descriptor of the stuff that ends up in the marine environment, as we associate “waste” with landfills and illegal roadside dump sites, called fly tipping, that often present toxic threats to people and the environment. In the marine environment, those toxic threats are to the species and ecosystem that constitute that environment.

Nature and Scope of the Problem

The marine waste can vary from pieces of paper to used Styrofoam food utensils and containers, to nappies or diapers, to sewage waste, and to the most ubiquitous material — plastics. We will return to the particular risks presented by plastic below when we discuss the status of marine waste under EU legislation and policies.

Some of the waste is disposed from sea vessels and much of it is washed or dumped into the sea from on-land facilities, including wastewater treatment plants. About 10% of it is discarded fishing gear, including nets, that continue to trap fish in what is called “ghost fishing.” Marine waste accumulates in coastal areas, either on the sea bottom or on beaches when washed ashore. Much of it remains at sea.

Fish, birds and other sea creatures swallow pieces of litter that can eventually kill them. Globally at least 43 % of cetacean species, all species of marine turtles, approximately 36 % of the world’s seabird species, and many species of fish have been reported to ingest marine litter. Marine litter can eventually enter the human food chain, when microplastics are ingested by fish or shellfish, which may subsequently be eaten by people. Finally, all this waste ends up costing us through beach cleaning, loss of tourism from littered beaches and seacoasts, fouled ship propellers, and ruined fishing gear. Research indicates that marine litter costs each vessel in the Scottish fleet between £15,000 and £17,000 each year.

Net Recovery








The EU Legal Framework

The European Union’s (EU) Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD, 2008/56/EC) established requirements for protecting the marine environment throughout the EU. Member states are required to achieve good environmental status (GES) in marine waters by 2020 by stopping further adverse impacts and risks, and by preventing further deterioration, and where practicable, restoring marine ecosystems. The Directive requires certain steps be taken, including an initial assessment of current status, establishing the GES based on various descriptors, setting targets, with monitoring programs and measures to achieve or maintain the GES. The steps are set forth in the Annexes. In implementing the Directive the Member States need to specify any impacts from climate change.

The Directive was transposed into United Kingdom (UK) law by the Marine Strategy Regulations 2010 and into Republic of Ireland (RoI) law by the European Community’s (Marine Strategy Framework) Regulations (SI No. 249 of 2011). Member states are required to develop strategies for their marine waters, and work with other states that share a marine environment.

Basically, the Member states develop criteria for GES based on factors and guidance set forth in the Annexes to the Directive, then they set targets for achieving the GES, and monitoring to make sure the targets are met and the marine environment remains protected. Recognising the critical step of defining criteria for GES, and the difficulties of doing so, the EU issued a Commission Decision in September 2012 providing more detailed guidance “on criteria and methodological standards on good environmental status of marine waters.”

It is important to note that under the Directive, “… Member States should not be required to take specific steps where there is no significant risk to the marine environment, or where the costs would be disproportionate taking into account of the risks to the marine environment, provided that any decision not to take action is properly justified.” Whereas clause No. 11. The term “significant risk” is not defined. In addition, there are provisions for special cases or exceptions, including for “reasons for overriding public interest which outweigh the negative impact on the environment.” These special cases are subject to Commission oversight.

In Annex I, “Qualitative descriptors for determining good environmental status,” the Directive requires that “Properties and quantities of marine litter do not cause harm to the coastal and marine environment.” No. 10. This provision serves as the basis for obligations and actions to address marine litter.

The Particular Problem with Plastics

Of critical importance to clearing the marine environment of waste, or litter, is dealing with plastics. A European Commission Green Paper on plastic waste (2013) explores the nature and scope of the problem. While plastic waste has been with us since 1907, more plastic was produced in last 10 years than in entire 20th century, and with the world’s population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, with a new middle class of 2 billion, plastics will likely grow even more pervasive and may triple in production.

Plastics are durable, light, and cheap and are widely used in industrial and consumer applications. The downside is that production of plastic uses 8% of the world’s oil supply, 4% as a raw material and 4% for energy to make it. A further downside is that plastic’s durability as a product survives its usefulness so that when it is disposed, it endures in the environment, sometimes for hundreds of years. And if it is disposed into, or reaches, the marine environment it is particularly problematic as it does not biodegrade. Instead it partially breaks down from sunlight, sometimes over hundreds of years, into tiny particles.

All this trash and smaller plastic particles are gathered together and moved around by ocean currents, eventually forming vast “patches” of plastic waste, one of which in the Pacific Ocean is about the size of Europe. Marine species get entangled or entrapped in plastic materials, and ingest the tiny particles. The impact is immense. Fifty-two species of marine mammals have been adversely affected, one million seabirds have been killed, coastal habitats have been destroyed, and seabeds smothered. Human health is affected when people eat fish that have ingested tiny particles of oil-based plastic.

Green Turtle







While plastic is fully recyclable, unfortunately only about 21% of it is being recycled in the EU. Much of the rest is landfilled or strewn on land where it can be washed into the marine environment.

The Northern Ireland Marine Strategy: Embracing Existing Programs

To address the problems associated with marine waste, the Northern Ireland devolved government, through its Department of the Environment, issued, in July 2013, a Northern Ireland Marine Litter Strategy. The EU Directive sets an overall target of reducing the number of visible litter items within specific categories or types of waste on coastlines. The NI strategy merely adopts this target as its goal and lists several means for achieving the goal, namely: educating and communicating to change attitudes and behaviors; enforcing to deter; collecting data to define problem; and building coastal infrastructure to reduce disposal of waste into seas.

The government acknowledges that initially (without any sense of what the time frame is for something beyond “initially”) the strategy will address only coastal litter and not seabed litter. Dealing with litter on the seabed is much more difficult and expensive and requires specialized equipment and staff. Litter in the water column generally ends up on the coast, with the caveat that plastic patches are forming in oceans as described above.

While the NI government provides an overall “strategy” to deal with marine waste, in effect it simply embraces a wide range of “existing” programs that have been undertaken by environmental non-government organizations (eNGOs), particularly Tidy Northern Ireland (Tidy NI), Marine Conservation Society, and the National Trust, as well as by the NI Tourist Board and NI Water. For instance, to meet Strategic Goal 1, reducing litter, the strategy will rely on “existing structures” [3.9], “existing campaigns” [3.13], and existing information [3.15].

Tidy NI, for instance, has in place a number of relevant initiatives that deal with litter, in its Eco Schools, Young Reporters for the Environment, Clean Coast campaign, and Big Spring Clean Up. The Marine Conservation Society organizes an annual Beachwatch Big Weekend, and National Trust owns or manages 200km of the Northern Ireland coastline and undertakes regular beach cleans.

The issue remains whether the government intends to increase funding for these eNGOs to do the work of cleaning the marine environment. If not, then the “strategy” would remain toothless.

The Status in the Republic of Ireland: An “Emerging” Issue

 In the Irish EPA report, Ireland’s Environment 2012 – An Assessment, the fifth in the series of such periodic assessments, the “Marine Environment” is treated, briefly, as an “Emerging Issue,” along with Fracking and the Legacy of the Celtic Tiger. Within the marine environment, “marine litter” is mentioned as one of the pressing issues, along with overfishing, acidification, and loss of biodiversity.

The Marine Institute (MI), a national agency responsible for marine research, technology development, and innovation, has been assigned a major role in implementing the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, including marine litter. Yet if you search for “marine litter” in the MI website, there are no hits.

Nevertheless, the MI has published Ireland’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive Implementation, described as an “information document” that is designed to inform the public about the details of the EU Marine Directive and how Ireland is required to implement it. Besides summarizing the requirements, the report discusses the economic benefits of the marine environment — it generated 1.2% of Ireland’s GDP and supported 1% of the total workforce in 2007. The report is helpful in defining, and mapping, the geographical reach of Ireland’s marine environment that is subject to the Directive, and areas of the seas and ocean that are otherwise subject to some control by Ireland.

As provided for in the Directive, the first steps in implementation include an initial assessment of marine waters and determination of the GES. In April 2013, the MI published Ireland’s Initial Assessment Reporting Sheet for Good Environmental Status, a set of reporting sheets, issued by an EU working group which specify data and information requirements for the 2012 reporting under the MSFD. This publication addresses only Descriptor No. 10 on marine litter and, as encouraged by the EU, relies on work done by existing organizations that have been dealing with marine issues for some time. Ireland participates and is relying on work done already under the OSPAR Convention, the current legal instrument guiding international cooperation on the protection of the marine environment of the North-East Atlantic. The OSPAR Commission, made up of representatives of the Governments of 15 Contracting Parties and the European Commission, representing the European Union, manages work under the Convention.

The MI reporting sheet states that “The amount of litter, and its degradation products [see Note], on coastlines and in the marine environment is reducing over time and are at levels which do not result in harmful effects to the coastal or marine environment.  Note: Degradation products of litter include small plastic particles and micro plastic particles.” Does this mean that marine litter does not present a significant threat, and that, under the MSFD, no corrective action is necessary?

The basis for this assessment is unclear, and the reporting sheet states that “there are still gaps in detailed knowledge on marine litter and there is need for further collaborative work at EU / regional or sub-regional level to establish the necessary monitoring tools and coordinated approaches that will allow the establishment of marine litter baselines and the future reporting of environmental trends and environmental impacts.”

It is probably fair to say that marine litter is, indeed, an emerging issue for the RoI, and that much of the work will rely on adapting already-developed data reporting and technologies by OSPAR and others.


According to the EU Scoreboard on implementation of the MSFD, Ireland has complied with the requirement for an Initial assessment (Art. 8), Determination of GES (Art. 9), and Environmental targets & indicators (Art. 10); the UK has submitted only part of the information required. In any case, there has been no evaluation as to whether the data and information submitted fufill the requirements of the Directive.

At this point, the NI government will rely on existing programs, undertaken primarily by eNGOs, to address marine litter. While it makes sense, programmatically and financially, to build on what already exists, there remains the obligation to deliver GES for the marine environment by 2020, including assuring that marine litter does not cause harm to the coastal and marine environment.

In the RoI, marine litter remains an emerging issue and it is not clear whether the government has determined that marine litter does not present a significant threat, which it would need to justify to the Commission.

In any case, the EU, NI and RoI separately and collectively can take direct action to assure that one of the most pressing marine wastes — plastics — are recycled and kept out of the marine environment, out of ecosystems, and out of people’s food sources.

The fact that we can see waste/litter on beaches and in the water provides a strong motivation to get rid of it. The more challenging, and costly, problem is how to deal with the waste/litter that rests on seabeds, out of sight, and which continues to put the marine ecosystem at risk.



Directive 2008/56/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 June 2008 establishing a framework for community action in the field of marine environmental policy (Marine Strategy Framework Directive)

COMMISSION DECISION of 1 September 2010 on criteria and methodological standards on good environmental status of marine waters (notified under document C(2010) 5956) (2010/477/EU).

European Commission, GREEN PAPER: On a European Strategy on Plastic Waste in the Environment, Brussels, 7.3.2013 COM(2013) 123 final

NI Department of the Environment, Northern Ireland Marine Litter Strategy (4 July 2013).

Irish EPA, Ireland’s Environment 2012 – An Assessment

Marine Institute, Marine Strategy Framework Directive Project Ireland’s Initial Assessment Reporting Sheet for Good Environmental Status (RS09-01_GoodEnvironmentalStatus) & Environmental Targets and Indicators (RS10-1_EnvironmentalTargetsAndIndicators) Descriptor 10 Marine Litter (April 2013).

Marine Institute, Ireland’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive Implementation,32063,en.pdf

The Marine Strategy Framework Directive Scoreboard

European Environment Agency, Marine litter – a growing threat worldwide

NOAA, “What We Know About: Garbage Patches,”

NOAA, Marine Debris Program


Editor’s Update: 03 Oct 2013

How a humpback whale named Foggy was caught in a tangle of ropes, fishing line, and old lobster traps off the coast of Long Island until freed by a Whale Disentanglement Crew (yes, that’s right).    “This whale stuck by her trapped friend while rescuers freed her,” Grist (03 Oct 2013).






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