Marine environment

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 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 through the foodweb 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 in place and planned through our updated Marine Litter Strategy and six year action plan (published September 2022) and the terrestrial National Litter and Flytipping Strategy (published June 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 20 pence 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

We published the refreshed Marine Litter Strategy on 28 September 2022, with themes of improving the attitude and behaviour of people and businesses, reducing litter sources, improving litter monitoring, co-ordinating efforts regionally and internationally, and supporting litter removal.

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's action plan. 

Scotland’s National Marine Plan (2015) underpins the strategy and includes marine planning policy to ensure measures are taken to address marine litter. We published the most recent Three Year report on the Effectiveness of Scotland’s National Marine Plan in March 2021. The refreshed National Litter and Flytipping Strategy and action plan (June 2023) aims to reduce Scotland’s litter at source on land, focusing on behaviour change, infrastructure and services, and enforcement. 

The Marine Litter Strategy helps Scotland to meet our national and international obligations, to aim for Good Environmental Status, 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 October 2022. 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, and collect our own. 

Marine litter research

We collect 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 of our 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. 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. We have 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 us 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, we also 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. The scheme will help raise recycling rates, cut emissions, and reduce littering.

Single-Use Plastic Regulations

On 1 June 2022, Scotland became the first part of the UK to implement legislation to restrict the sale or commercial supply of a number of plastic items: plastic cutlery, plates, straws, beverage stirrers and balloon sticks, as well as food and beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene. 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 was limited during 2020-2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Wet wipes containing plastic

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.

Following this, we held a UK-wide consultation on a proposal to ban the manufacture, supply and sale of wet wipes containing plastic between October and November 2023. Responses are being analysed and a report will be published.

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 and aquaculture industry litter.

We are committed to working together to tackle the issue of marine litter, and the fishing sector 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.

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.

Since 2019 we have undertaken considerable research to develop an inventory for fishing and aquaculture gear and to analyse waste management policy options. A joint UK-wide report was published by DEFRA on 9 March 2022.This research will support the development of solutions, with our fishing industries, contributing to our circular economy and preventing further marine plastic pollution from these sources.

Our work through the British Standards Institution to support the development of the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN) standard for circular design of fishing and aquaculture gear, aims to reduce the environmental impact of plastic gear during its entire lifespan, supporting reuse and improving recycling opportunities.

We will work to develop a waste management scheme that improves the management of end of life fishing gear, by establishing systems to support the collection and recycling of gear.

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 (nurdles)

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, we 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.

In January 2023, Operation Clean Sweep launched their own certification scheme which was developed to ensure compliance with the programme in Europe.  

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 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. We are 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.

We have used 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 will 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.

We have led several clean-ups of the Arrochar shoreline from 2018 to 2022. Much of 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 total, over 1000 tonnes of seaweed mixed with small plastic debris has been removed from the shore at Arrochar since 2018.

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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