Marine litter

Marine litter is a global challenge, affecting the world’s oceans, seas, coastlines and shores. The problem is largely caused by a range of material such as plastics, metals and glass which degrade very slowly. The most commonly found litter at sea and washed ashore is plastic.

Marine plastics have a negative impact on our marine environment, our economy and they threaten human health. Larger plastic items in our seas can entangle animals, smother habitats, damage tourism, and pose a serious risk to life and livelihood by causing breakdown of vessels at sea. As a result of sunlight and wave exposure, plastics become fragmented, making their way into the marine ecosystem by ingestion, consumed by creatures as small as plankton to as large as sea mammals. Plastic fragments cause obstruction and physical damage to the digestive tracts of animals which eat them and can result in death. Plastics may also act as a vector for contaminants.

Tackling marine litter requires governments, industry and communities to reduce the amount of litter entering the marine environment from land and sea-based sources and to also remove litter that is already there. We are helping address these issues with many policies and legislation put in place, including A marine litter strategy for Scotland and the terrestrial National litter strategy. We have reviewed these strategies and published the refreshed Marine Litter Strategy in September 2022. We will publish an update to the terrestrial strategy in 2023. 

Tackling marine litter 

Marine litter is washing up on Scottish shores with each tide. It has many sources, from land and sea and from Scotland as well as other countries. In fact some litter has even travelled from other continents. In addition to work planned under our Marine Litter Strategy, we further prioritised actions to tackle plastic pollution with commitments in our Programmes for Government:

2017 to 2018

  • committed to introducing a deposit return scheme for drinks containers – report published 21 Feb 2019. People will pay a deposit of 20p when they buy a drink in a single use can or bottle, but they will get this back when they take the container to one of the return points
  • committed £500,000 to begin to address litter sinks around the coast and to develop policy to address marine plastics, which will involve working with community groups. Arrochar was identified as a case study area and is being monitored and maintained. 1002 tonnes of litter has been removed between 2018 and 2022. £100,000 was used to extend work of SCRAPbook mapping litter hot spots to include the whole of the mainland. More details on this project can be seen below
  • hosted an international conference to discuss improving our marine environment and protecting our wildlife, focusing on marine plastics
  • established an expert panel to consider environmental levies to increase recycling and reduce litter

2018 to 2019

  • committed to working with the fishing sector and coastal communities to develop proposals to tackle the issue of fishing litter and lost gear. This has resulted in multiple actions including a joint commitment to improve gear collection and recycling as well as improving industry marine litter education. This was agreed at the first British-Irish Council Marine Litter Symposium held in February 2019 and details can be seen in the communique

2019 to 2020

  • update our Marine Litter Strategy, increasing focus on litter removal alongside litter prevention. Covid restrictions resulted in a delay to this work, and the refreshed Strategy was published in September 2022

Marine Litter Strategy

The Strategy was originally launched in 2014 with over 40 action points, with the aim to reduce the amount of litter entering our waters. These cover improving the attitude and behaviour of people and businesses, reducing litter sources, improving how we monitor and respond to the problem, making sure that what we do makes a difference, and working with other countries to tackle this global problem.

Central to the Strategy is the need for a co-ordinated approach to tackle this problem through partnership working and to influence individuals’ behaviours. A stakeholder Marine Litter Strategy Steering Group was set up to support implementation and monitoring of the Strategy. 

The Marine Litter Strategy has been reviewed and a consultation on the updated Strategy closed on 22 March 2022. We published a consultation analysis report on  8 August 2022. We published the updated Strategy on 28 September 2022, alongside a refreshed action plan.

Scotland’s National Marine Plan underpins the strategy and includes marine planning policy to ensure measures are taken to address marine litter. The most recent Three Year report on the Effectiveness of Scotland’s National Marine Plan was published in March 2021. Marine Scotland also sits on the steering group for our terrestrial National Litter Strategy. The strategy aims to reduce Scotland’s litter at source on land, focusing on littering behaviour, fly-tipping and enforcement to reduce the amount of litter which can escape into the marine environment.

The Marine Litter Strategy helps Scotland to meet our national and international obligations, to meet Good Environmental Status in our marine waters by 2020 under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive while we were in Europe, and the requirement that ‘the properties and quantities of marine litter do not cause harm to the coastal and marine environments’. We also report against the UK Marine Strategy, which provides a three stage framework for delivering marine policy at the UK level. An update to part one was published in October 2019, and the updated part two was published in March 2021. Part three is currently under review.

We continue to work with the European Commission and countries bordering the North East Atlantic through OSPAR and we are committed to implementing the OSPAR Regional Action Plan for Marine Litter. We are also working towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14, which is to ‘conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development’.

All our marine litter policies are developed with an evidence-based approach. We use data and research from multiple sources including Marine Scotland Science.

Marine litter research

Marine Scotland Science (MSS) collects a range of marine litter data which are kept for national reference as well as contributing to international databases.

Seabed litter

Seabed litter is monitored on all MSS vessels which carry out fish trawl surveys in Scotland’s sea areas. Furthermore, a statistical analysis is underway which will result in better estimates of the density of seabed litter.


Floating microplastics in our seas are also monitored by sampling the sea surface from our research vessels, and findings have been published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin. In addition, sub-tidal marine sediment samples are collected and analysed with a plan to include tidal sediment too. We also sample marine life for plastic content, with dead fulmars collected and used as an indicator species for floating plastic as part of an OSPAR-wide programme. To help with the monitoring, we have produced guidance on what to do if you see a fulmar. We intend to extend our collection and analysis to shellfish and fish stomach contents.

Beach litter

The majority of Scotland’s beach litter data is gathered by volunteers which use an agreed survey protocol. Many of these surveys are organised by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) Beachwatch programme. MSS has modelled the distribution of beach plastic around Scotland, and developed indicators of beach litter types and abundance.

The effort of all the volunteers involved in these surveys around Scotland’s shores is very much appreciated and is helping Marine Scotland understand how best to tackle the problem.

Seabed litter, floating microplastics and beach litter around Scotland were all assessed in Scotland’s Marine Assessment 2020.

Marine plastics

In 2020, MSS also recently published estimates of how much plastic Scotland discharges into the sea each year: Estimating a regional budget of marine plastic litter in order to advise on marine management measures.

Reducing sources of marine litter

We have many policies and regulations in place or planned to reduce certain sources of marine litter. These target both macroplastic (>5mm) and microplastic items (<5mm).

Macroplastic litter policies

Deposit Return Scheme

In our 2019 to 2020 Programme for Government, we announced our intention to introduce a Deposit Return Scheme covering drinks in glass, PET plastic, and metal containers. We will ask consumers to pay a 20p deposit whenever they buy a drink in one of these containers, which they can get back when they return the bottle or can to be recycled at any of the return points. We hope that the scheme will help raise recycling rates, cut emissions, and reduce littering.

Single-Use Plastic Directive

In October 2020, we launched a public consultation seeking views on the introduction of new legislation to restrict the sale or commercial supply of a number of plastic items such as: plastic cutlery, plates, straws, beverage stirrers and balloon sticks, food and beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene, and all oxo-degradable products. We published the consultation report, summarising the response to the consultation in March 2021. The ban became fully effective on 12 August 2022.

Plastic-stemmed cotton buds

Plastic-stemmed cotton buds are contributing to the global marine plastic problem, damaging the marine environment, increasing risk to public health from contact on beaches and bathing waters and risking health further when fragments of plastic enter the food chain. They are in our seas because people continue to flush them down toilets and sewage treatment works cannot prevent all of them reaching the sea. When entering sewage systems, the plastic stems do not settle with organics as their buoyancy allows them to flow through plant equipment and their narrow diameter means they are not caught by all screens.

Following public consultation, The Environmental Protection (Cotton Buds)(Scotland) Regulations 2019 came into force on 12 October 2019, enforcing a ban on the sale of plastic-stemmed cotton buds. Plastic cotton bud stems are consistently observed to constitute approximately 5-10% of marine debris surveyed in European seas and feature in the ten most common items found in Marine Conservation Society beach surveys in Scotland. We are starting to see this figure decrease following implementation of the ban, however monitoring has been limited during 2020-2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Plastic wet wipes

The Scottish Government supports Water UK and their work to develop and promote a Fine to Flush standard across British waste water companies, and encourage wet wipe manufacturers to adopt these standards which prohibit plastic ingredients and allow for disintegration during the normal flushing process.

We also support efforts to promote behaviour change and stop consumers flushing wet wipes down their toilets. Scottish Water and the Marine Conservation Society, who are members of our Marine Litter Strategy Steering Group, have both run several campaigns to help tackle this source of plastic pollution.

We consulted on single-use plastic products between October 2020 and January 2021, including problematic plastic wet wipes and tampon applicators, and responses supported taking action. We encourage the UK Government and other devolved administrations to work together with us to develop a UK-wide ban on wet wipes containing plastic.

Marine industry waste

We are working internationally with countries bordering the North-East Atlantic as part of the OSPAR (Oslo/Paris Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic) Marine Litter Working Group to reduce fishing industry litter.

We are committed to working together to tackle the issue of marine litter, and the industry is represented within the Marine Litter Strategy Steering Group. We will align with the ambitions set out in the EU Single Use Plastic Directive in addition to the revised EU Port Reception Facilities Directive. The Port Reception Facilities Directive encourages responsible behaviour by ensuring that there are adequate waste facilities at all ports, for all vessels, including members of the fishing fleet.

The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) provides guidance for ship owners and operators regarding waste management on board vessels and the recording requirements for lost fishing gear.

As mentioned above, in February 2019 we hosted the British-Irish Council Marine Litter Symposium to discuss with other administrations and experts how best to establish a recycling system for end of life fishing gear. We also used this event to promote further marine litter education within the fishing industry.

Riverine litter

We support Keep Scotland Beautiful’s Upstream Battle campaign, which focuses on changing littering behaviour along the length of the rivers Clyde and Tay, and their tributaries. A large proportion of marine litter originates on land. The main goal of the Upstream Battle project is to prevent litter getting into these rivers and then ending up in the sea.

Microplastic litter policies

Plastic pellets

Plastic pellets, which can also be in the form of powders and flakes, are used to manufacture all plastic products. They can be made of virgin or recycled polymers and are a source of marine litter, as they can leak from any stage of the supply chain, making their way to our seas. They arrive on our shores from multiple sources, accumulating on certain beaches as a result of oceanographic processes and are the second biggest source of microplastic pollution after tyre wear.

We support the plastic industry’s ‘Operation Clean Sweep®’ (OCS), which is an initiative whereby members of the plastics industry can make a voluntary pledge to implement best handling practice to prevent pellet loss, and to clean up the material should an accidental spill occur.

The plastics industry has promoted OCS and the number of businesses that have committed to it has grown considerably in recent years. However with the wide distribution of pellets found on our shores, we recognise that more needs to be done. That is why we formed the Scottish Plastic Pellets Loss Steering Group (PPLSG), with a membership spanning industry representatives from across the supply chain from producer through to transporters and retailers, NGOs, regulatory bodies and other relevant organisations. This group worked with Eunomia to develop a workplan for a supply chain approach to reduce plastic pellet loss.

Following this, Marine Scotland co-sponsored the first pellet handling standard, the Publicly Available Specification 510 (PAS), developed with the British Standards Institution and a steering group of industry, NGOs and relevant bodies. The standard was published in July 2021. A factsheet has been produced by the British Plastics Federation.

In addition, the Scottish PPLSG developed minimum requirements for a certification scheme which would use the PAS as a tool to allow any business handling or managing pellets to be externally audited to demonstrate good practice.

All of this work contributes to Action C.1.1 of the OSPAR Regional Action Plan for Marine Litter. It has provided all contracting parties of OSPAR with agreed recommendations and guidance to implement policy measures to reduce pellet loss, and demonstrates a clear level of international ambition and expectation for the global plastics industry on this issue.

Microplastic microbeads

Microbeads, added as exfoliators in face scrubs, toothpastes and shower gels, can cause serious harm to marine life, with one shower alone sending up to 100,000 beads down our drains. These microbeads do not biodegrade and accumulate in the marine environment.

The Environmental Protection (Microbeads) (Scotland) Regulations 2018 was introduced on 19 June 2018 in unison with the ban on sales from the UK Government. This legislation bans the manufacture and sale of rinse-off personal care products containing plastic microbeads which may cause harm to the marine environment. The ban applies to solid microplastic ingredients, less than 5 mm in size, which are used as an ingredient in rinse-off cosmetics and personal care products including, but not limited to, exfoliating scrubs, shower gels and toothpastes.

This ban provides preventative action on harmful substances entering the marine environment and helps deliver our vision for clean, healthy, safe, productive and diverse seas. managed to meet the long-term needs of nature and people.

Artificial pitch infill

Rubber crumb is commonly used on artificial or Third Generation (3G) pitches to provide a comfortable playing surface. This is a form of microplastic and it can be lost from pitches on clothing and in drainage. This leakage can be extremely harmful to the wider environment, as pitch infill can be mistaken for food by wildlife, and accumulate in soils and sediments.

KIMO and NGO Fidra, have worked together on the Pitch In project to produce a community toolkit and best practice guidance for these facilities and the people who use them, to reduce this source of microplastic pollution. Marine Scotland is working with stakeholders to support the implementation of this guidance in Scotland.

Removal policies

Marine litter sinks

A litter sink is an area where marine litter accumulates due to a combination of wind direction, tidal motion and the spin of the earth. There are a number of litter sinks around Scotland’s coastline, particularly on the west coast. The litter comes from a range of sources globally and impacts on local communities who find themselves clearing up other people’s rubbish.

Marine Scotland is using the Arrochar litter sink, at the head of Loch Long, as a case study to monitor waste influx and support community led litter picks and surveys. The results of the monitoring and surveys help to inform research and policy development for marine litter. It is this learning that will be used to help us tackle other litter sinks across Scotland, and marine litter more generally.

Marine Scotland led a clean-up of the Arrochar shoreline in May 2018. 140 volunteers picked 244 bags of rubbish and 185 tonnes of mixed seaweed and litter was mechanically removed from the shore. This work was in partnership with Argyll and Bute Council, The GRAB Trust, Marine Conservation Society, Zero Waste Scotland, Keep Scotland Beautiful, Arrochar, Ardlui and Tarbet community council, Luss Estates and the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.

In May 2019 we repeated this exercise and removed 218 tonnes of seaweed mixed with small plastic debris from the shore. A clean-up in March 2020 removed a further 217 tonnes of seaweed mixed with litter, and in March 2021 we removed 131 tonnes from the shore. In March 2022, we removed a further 248 tonnes.

Other initiatives to facilitate the removal of marine litter include: 

  • funding KIMO’s Fishing For Litter, which supports fishermen to remove and bring ashore litter that they catch in their nets
  • funding of Local Coastal Partnerships around Scotland’s coastline which all have a role to play in supporting beach cleans and other efforts to reduce marine litter
  • supporting SCRAPbook, a collaborative project between the Moray Firth Partnership and Sky Watch to map the litter hot spots around Scotland’s mainland coastline and support their clean-ups

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