HRH Duke of Edinburgh, 10 June 1921 to 9 April 2021 Read more

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 very slowly degradable material such as plastics, metals and glass. 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 outlined in our litter strategies.  

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 and further ashore, indeed some litter has even travelled from other continents. We  prioritised actions to tackle marine litter with commitments in our 2017-18 and 2018-2019 Programmes for Government:

  • hosting Scotland's International Marine Conference 2019 to discuss improving our marine environment and protecting our wildlife, focusing on marine plastics. See section on left hand side of page for information.

  • work with the fisheries sector and coastal communities to develop proposals to tackle the issue of fishing litter and lost gear.

Further to this, we committed to reviewing our Marine Litter Strategy in our 2019-2020 Programme for Government, increasing focus on litter removal alongside litter prevention. This strategy was originally launched in 2014 and has over 40 action points which 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.

The Strategy helps Scotland to meet our obligations under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive to achieve good environmental status in our marine waters by 2020, and the requirement that “the properties and quantities of marine litter do not cause harm to the coastal and marine environments”. 

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 which is currently under review and will be published in 2020.

Scotland’s National Marine Plan underpins the strategy and includes marine planning policy to ensure measures are taken to address marine litter. Marine Scotland also sit on the steering group for our National Litter Strategy. This aims to reduce Scotland’s litter at source on land, in turn reducing the amount of litter which can escape into the marine environment.

We support many initiatives to reduce the amount of litter entering our seas, and fund organisations which educate members of the public, organise beach litter cleans and promote the safe-disposal of marine litter. Examples include:

  • supporting KIMO’s Fishing For Litter, which helps fishermen remove and bring ashore litter that they catch in their nets.

  • supporting KIMO’s ‘Pick Up 3 Pieces’ initiative, which encourages beach visitors to take 3 pieces of litter with them when they leave; and

  • 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 round Scotland’s mainland coastline and support their clean-ups. We provide funding for two marine litter officers and an engagement officer, who will support and carry out beach cleans in less accessible areas, guided by SCRAPbook data. 

Marine litter research

Marine Scotland Science (MSS) collect a range of marine litter data. Seabed litter is monitored on all MSS vessels which carry out trawling, covering most of Scotland’s seas. 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 them from the sea surface. In addition sub-tidal marine sediment samples are now also being collected and analysed. Research into analysing microplastics in sediment and biota (fish stomachs and shellfish) is planned. We also collect already dead fulmars, for stomach content analysis of plastic debris, as fulmars are used as an indicator species with OSPAR.

MSS have co-chaired the MASTS microplastics group and is seeking to invigorate this group to include macro as well as microplastic. This role is shared with Heriot Watt University which we are supporting to research beach sediment microplastic sampling methodology.  Heriot Watt are also studying toxin absorption by microplastics.

Plastic pellets

We are working hard to reduce plastic pellet, flake and powder loss to the marine environment. Plastic pellets arrive on our shores from multiple sources, accumulating on certain beaches as a result of oceanographic processes.

It can be very difficult to trace where these plastic pellets have come from, as they are handled by many different businesses through the plastics supply chain. This makes it very difficult to identify the ‘leak’ from the system.  

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. This is why we are working with the plastics industry, the marine plastic pollution charity Fidra and other relevant parties to consider how the scheme can be extended across the full supply chain to further reduce plastic pellet loss to the environment.

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 are continuing 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, their buoyancy allows them to flow through plant equipment and their narrow diameter means they are not caught by all screens.

In January 2018 we proposed to introduce legislation which bans the manufacture and sale of plastic-stemmed cotton buds in Scotland. A public consultation was held from 27 April – 22 June 2018, and the subsequent consultation response report published on 30 July 2018. The Environmental Protection (Cotton Buds)(Scotland) Regulations 2019 came into force on 12 October 2019.

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 hope to see this figure decrease following implementation of the ban.

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. Up to 680 tonnes of plastic microbeads are used in cosmetic products sold in the UK every year, resulting in billions of tiny beads entering our seas annually. These microbeads do not biodegrade and accumulate in the marine environment.

A joint-UK consultation was completed in February 2017 to investigate a ban on the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products in the UK, and called for evidence on other sources of microplastics entering the marine environment. The Summary of Responses was published on 21 July 2017 and can be viewed at the bottom of this page. A public notice of the draft Environmental Protection (Microbeads) (Scotland) Regulations 2018 was subsequently placed in the Edinburgh and London Gazette on the 22nd December. Representations were invited in writing, to be received by 11 January 2018. No representations were received by email or post.  Notifications were also made to the World Trade Organisation under their Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement and to the European Commission under the Technical Standards Directive.  The Environmental Protection (Microbeads) (Scotland) Regulations 2018 was subsequently 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 the Scottish Government’s vision for clean, healthy, safe, productive and diverse seas; managed to meet the long-term needs of nature and people.

Marine litter sinks

A litter sink is an area where marine litter accumulates due to a combination 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 on 23-26 May 2018. 140 volunteers picked 244 bags of rubbish and 185 tonnes of mixed seaweed litter waste was mechanically removed from the shore.  This work was in partnership with Argyll and Bute council, 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. On 20-21 May 2019 we repeated this exercise and removed 220 tonnes of seaweed mixed with small plastic debris from the shore, equating to 14 lorry loads. 

As part of our commitment to begin to address marine litter sinks, we provided funding to start the SCRAPbook project, which uses volunteer pilots from the charity Skywatch to take aerial photos of the coastline to identify litter hot spots. This will enable clean-up resources to be used more efficiently following analysis of the photos.  Data is managed and the project coordinated by the other two partners, Marine Conservation Society and the Moray Firth Partnership.

On 3 October 2018 Marine Scotland announced a new fund in partnership with Zero Waste Scotland. This fund is designed to support innovation in marine plastics capture, collection and recovery.

Fulmar research

As part of its work on marine litter, Marine Scotland is supporting the OSPAR coordinated monitoring of plastic particles in fulmars stomachs. To help with the monitoring, we have produced guidance on what to do if you see a fulmar.

British-Irish Council Marine Litter Symposium

Marine Scotland hosted the British-Irish Council Marine Litter Symposium on  22 February 2019. This saw Environment Ministers from around the UK commit to:

  • Promoting marine litter education within schools and the fishing industry
  • Reducing Pre-production Plastic Loss across the supply chain, (nurdles)
  • Improve recycling routes for end of life fishing nets

Read the the symposium communiqué.

Scotland's International Marine Conference 2019

Scotland’s International Marine Conference 2019 focussed on current national and international actions to protect the marine environment. Through discussion we aim to identify emerging threats to our seas and consider what new measures are required to protect the marine environment for future generations.


Conference programme

Conference proceedings

Related information: