What is Marine Debris?

Marine debris. Ocean Garbage, Beach Litter, Plastic Pollution. You may have seen these terms online, on social media, in the news, or documentaries like A Plastic Ocean or MIDWAY a Message from the Gyre. Most likely you have seen it written all over our website, social media and in our other blog posts. In case you haven’t and are unaware of the marine debris epidemic and you are looking for answers, look no further. I am here to help and fill you in on one of the LARGEST and MOST OVERLOOKED threats to the health and sustainability of our planet. In most cases, the topic is swept under the rug. Why you ask?  It is a messy issue putting direct blame on our everyday choices as humans. It puts our own actions under the microscope and no one wants to be at fault. It is a very frustrating, difficult, complex and quite a multidimensional problem to discuss. It’s not fashionable or glamourous. It’s messy, smelly, gross, dangerous and in some cases it’s so small you can’t even see it. I mean, come on people, were talking about trash here!

marine debris

(The most common offenders of land-based debris collected in Hollywood Beach Florida, May 2017)

It is a complex multifaceted and overwhelmingly vast issue. Even though the problem has been around for nearly 6 decades, there is still a lot we do not know about it. In order for us to find solutions to this issue we need to fully understand the problem. Let’s just jump right into it...

The term “MARINE DEBRIS” is defined as:any manufactured or processed persistent solid material that is directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment” by NOAAs Marine Debris Program. It is sort of a “catch-all” term for anything that is a man-made, in solid form, and finds its way into the ocean. Easy right? Well, when we dive deeper into how we identify what marine debris is, there is more than meets the eye.

There are TWO main sources of debris.


LAND-BASED: 80% of debris found in our oceans today is due to land-based sources. These are objects like: bottle caps, plastic straws, balloons, cigarette butts, plastic utensils and plastic bags. In reality, it is anything we would casually use in our day-to-day life that finds its way into the ocean. Some other  common beach finds would be shampoo bottles, band-aids, food wrappers, toothbrushes, hypodermic needles, even toilet seats.

MARINE-BASED: This type of debris completes the remaining 20% of litter found in our oceans. These debris types are directly related to marine related activities such as: recreational or commercial fishing, large shipping containers, marine military offshore platforms, boating and cruise ships. These are items like marine rope, nets, live traps, monofilament fishing line/wire, hooks, and lead weights. They also take form of large abandoned vessels, ship wrecks, oil platforms and derelict fishing gear. Even though marine-based debris is found in fewer numbers, the THREATS of this type of debris may possibly be the most destructive to the marine ecosystem.

(Marine rope salvaged in Bahamas)

 We can also classify debris by its size.

               One of the most common ways we classify marine debris is by its size. Some debris is large (like Styrofoam coolers, mini fridges or car tires), while others are so small you cannot see them with the naked eye. One of the most common debris size classifications is based off NOAA Marine Debris Program charts; however, deviations of these size classifications aren’t uncommon. (SEE BELOW: format this however you want, I wanted to show pictures of things that represent something that is in that size range as an example but that’s a lot of image formatting on Word that I don’t want to deal with)
 marine debris morgan knowles
Mega (>1m, 100) Goliath Grouper lol!!!
 marine debris macro
Macro (1m-2.5cm, ~10-1)
meso marine debris
Meso (2.5cm-5mm, ~10-2m)
micro marine debris
Micro (5mm-.33mm or ~10-4m) (Pencil is for reference of size)
Nano-debris (<1um, or ~10-6m) (Not Pictured)
* These size classes push beyond visual limits. There are also papers stating they have identified “pico” classed particles at the cellular level within the bodies of marine organisms. Pico-debris (<1um or ~10-9m).

      Now we know what it is, how to identify and classify it, how does it get into the marine environment in the first place? Debris can enter the marine environment DIRECTLY from let’s say a crab pot was thrown overboard and miss tied to its float line. Or, it can be INDIRECTLY transported though landfills and city streets following sewer drains, rivers, streams, wind, rain or by storm. It can be INTENTIONALLY discarded into the sea via a careless flick of a cigarette butt into the water or lastly UNINTENTIONALLY finding its way into our waterways through misplacement and forgetfulness. Once in the ocean, debris can be transported across the globe in a relatively short period of time by the wind and waves. Some of it floats on the water’s surface, some of it hangs mid-water column and others sinks to the benthos (sea floor ) in Davy Jones locker.

Currently there is no ocean that is not contaminated with marine debris, even in the most remote and pristine places on the planet. There is now OVER ONE TON of debris for every  single human on this planet, which is 7.5 billion humans (and counting...). Our oceans are drowning in garbage and fishing gear.   

iceberg of plastic

               Unfortunately, I have some more bad news. This is just the tip of the iceberg wonderfully illustrated by artist Jorge Gamboa. There is so much more to learn about marine debris. Like, how it effects our environment, economy, marine organisms, our seafood, our own health and safety plus so much more! 

               On a positive note, we have people like YOU who are educating yourself on the problem and are taking the first step to doing something about it! What we CAN do is spread awareness and expose the problem, educating people on ocean-minded decisions that will improve the health, safety and quality of life to all that inhabits this planet. Here are just a few things you can start doing TODAY to reduce your impacts on the oceans:


  • Refuse single-use plastics, such as plastic straws, water bottles, plastic bags, polystyrene to-go containers or even going zero-waste!
  • Reusable water canteens, coffee cups, tumblers, bags, straws and cutlery.
  • If you cannot avoid plastics, opt for easily recyclable alternatives. Make sure to check with your local recycling facility for details.
  • Stop buying NEW things, fix up your old stuff or buy second hand.
  • Join a clean-up at the beach or at a reef, or in your neightborhood, college campus or even a national park! all water leads to the sea and every bit helps.
  • Choosing sustainable fisheries and fishing practices.


               By doing small little changes every day, the impact of those choices ripples its way across the ocean to make a tidal wave of change. This is why Planet Love Life has created their brand and their lifestyle and passion for spreding awareness on ocean issues and what you can do about it. We want YOU to have the knowledge, to have the power and to be able to take matters into your own hands.

                Marine debris and plastic pollution are huge global epidemics. They affect everything from our oceans, our atmosphere, our water quality, our economy, our seafood, our health and safety. Stay tuned for more blogs from me to dive in deeper to how marine debris effects everything on our planet. There is no “Planet B”, we must take care of our resources and protect what keeps our planet alive, our oceans.


One Planet, One Love, One life
-Morgan Knowles M.S. Marine Biologist
Planet Love Life Ambassador & Blogger



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