Freshwater is a precious resource we are lucky to have in abundance in our backyard – our Great Lakes support the largest freshwater fishery, billions in tourism revenue, and drinking water for over 11 million people.

What We Know About Plastic Marine Debris

One of the main types of marine debris that you hear about today is plastic Marine debris. The word “plastic” is used to describe a collection of artificial or man made chemical compounds that come in about as many shapes, sizes and colors as you can imagine. Examples are styrofoam carryout containers and bottles caps; two common items found in our oceans and waterways. Plastics are used in many aspects of daily life and are a big part of our waste and recycling stream. Plastics last a long time and will degrade into small pieces until you can’t see them anymore. This process happens slower in water than on land. Most commonly used plastics do not mineralize (or go away) in our oceans, lakes, rivers and streams but instead break down into smaller and smaller pieces. These pieces are called microplastics and are generally less than 5mm long. Bio-based plastics break down in a compost pile or landfill, but are generally not designed to degrade as quickly in the ocean. Plastic has the potential to harm fish and other wildlife in two main ways: direct impacts and indirect impacts. Studies have shown that fish and other marine life do eat plastic. If plastics are kept in the gut instead of passing through, the fish could feel full (of plastic not food) which leads to malnutrition and starvation.

What can you do?

  • It’s important to get involved and participate in local cleanups in your area.
  • Remember that the land and sea, no matter where you are, are connected.
  • Reduce the amount of waste you produce.
  • Reuse items whenever possible
  • Recycle as much as possible – bottles, cans, glass, paper, cardboard, cell phones, ink cartridges, tires and much more. Check your city website so you know all that is acceptable for your recycling program.

According to the Alliance For The Great Lakes, Adopt-a-Beach Program the top 10 items removed from beaches are:

  1. Cigarette filters
  2. Food wrappers and containers
  3. Caps and lids
  4. Straws and stirrers
  5. Cigar tips
  6. Plastic bags
  7. Cups, plates, eating utensils
  8. Glass bottles
  9. Plastic bottles
  10. Beverage cans

Cleveland youth and volunteers have been participating in the Adopt-a-Beach program since 2008. Each year Alliance staff meets with city partners to share and compare results for water sampling and discuss their top litter findings. In addition, groups discuss how to use the data collected to  improve beach health.

Recycling is not only a way to reduce your impact, but also a great way to prevent marine debris! Learn to do it correctly. Get the facts here. The best solution for preventing marine debris is don’t litter and pick up any litter you find, disposing of it properly!

Great Lakes Action Plan – The Great Lakes Land-based Marine Debris Action Plan provides partners a road map to success for addressing marine debris in the region. Click marine-debrishere for information on marine debris in the Great Lakes

News Articles Relating to Plastic and Plastic Marine Debris:

The Plastic Bag Diet: Links to mini-doc




Plastic-Free Great Lakes

Dell, General Motors, Others Convene Cross-Industry Group to Address Marine Litter, Dec. 12, 2017

The Story of Plastic

Scuba Diver Finds Bicycle

Millions Of Pieces Of Plastic Are Piling Up On An Otherwise Pristine Pacific Island, May 15, 2017

Microfibers: The New Plastic Pollution That Threatens Our Waters, March 2, 2017

This Is What 200 Tons of Marine Debris Looks Like … From Just 12 Miles of Alaska’s Coastline, July 15, 2016

Car Engine Cover, Fishing Net and Plastic Bucket Found in Stomachs of Dead Sperm Whales, March 28, 2016

Online Portal for Marine Litter

Large amounts of litter have accumulated across all parts of our oceans in less than fifty years. Litter has thus become a serious threat to the marine environment, aquatic life and humankind, whose welfare is closely linked with ocean health. Research on marine litter is currently taking a great leap forward and has substantially increased our knowledge of the amount and composition of litter as well as its impacts on the marine environment, aquatic life and people. However, the sheer number of studies scattered all around the globe has rendered this topic increasingly intangible making it difficult for policy makers, public authorities, media and the general public to unearth important information needed to address the urgent questions. LITTERBASE summarises results from over 1,000 scientific studies in understandable global maps and figures and opens scientific knowledge on marine litter to the public.