Marine litter issues, impacts and actions

A study that will contribute to developing a marine litter strategy for Scotland’s seas in light of the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010.

12 Proposed Objectives for a Scottish Marine Litter Strategy

By 2020 marine litter in Scotland is significantly reduced and does not pose a risk to the environment or communities. This is supported by our vision of a zero waste society, where people and businesses act responsibly and reuse, recycle, and recover waste resources

12.1 Strategic Directions and Actions

The Vision for a 'clean and safe' marine and coastal environment is operationalised by several strategic directions. It is important to note that the directions as listed are not in order of priority.

Strategic Direction 1: Improve public awareness of, and behaviour changes around, marine litter.


  • Assess socially acceptable levels of marine litter and links to economic impact
  • Improve education on the full impacts of marine litter in order to stimulate a pro-active approach to its prevention and minimisation
  • Encourage a programme of public participation in waste reduction activities to increase public awareness
  • Incentivise the reuse of plastic and other containers and their correct disposal through for example deposit schemes and reverse vending and market based instruments
  • Incorporate educational material on the sources and effects of litter and ways of reducing the problem at source into the curriculum for excellence
  • Ensure mandatory labelling of sanitary products with the correct disposal information: 'Bag It and Bin It - Please Don't Flush It' being clearly visible
  • Support an education programme directed towards specific user groups i.e. anglers, boat owners and other recreational groups
  • Investigate the application of a range of market instruments to support the reduction of land and sea based sources
  • Provide sufficient funding for national and local educational campaigns

Achieving a vision of marine litter in Scotland being significantly reduced and not posing a risk to the environment or communities will depend on everyone playing their part by recognising and taking responsibility for their own actions. Surveys have shown that up to 50% of people litter on a regular basis; this attitude towards the environment has to change. Marine litter is a global issue yet its resolve will only come about through the support and commitment of the people of Scotland and those around the world. To support that, everyone in Scotland needs consistent messages on how to reduce, reuse and recycle, making it clear how each and every one of us can participate as part of daily life.

As advocated by Scotland's Marine Atlas (Baxter et al. 2011) individuals, schools, further education establishments and businesses need to understand how their behaviour can prevent the widespread and often tragic impacts of marine litter through responsible waste practices and resource efficiency, from the products they design, produce and buy, and how they are used and disposed of.

Strategic Direction 2: Reduction of terrestrial and maritime sources of litter entering the marine environment


Land Based Sources

  • Encouragement of "Food on the Go" code of practice for beach outlets and kiosks, and enforcement where necessary
  • A ban on all balloon releases, and their recognition as a form of littering
  • Provision of adequate rubbish disposal and recycling facilities for the public, particularly at beaches, supported by publicity on their location
  • Expansion of national recycling schemes and infrastructure, especially for kerbside plastics collection and research into refillables
  • Play a key role in the UNEP Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities initiative
  • Local planning and development control must control litter from sites in proximity to the coast


  • Properly enforce current legislation for the protection and improvement of the marine environment
  • Increase enforcement and impose sufficient fines for litter offences to make them a sufficient deterrent and ensure polluters pay costs that truly reflect the damage they cause
  • Better implementation of Environment Protection Act 1990 to ensure the enforcement of anti-littering laws on all land including beaches including the removal of litter from beaches by Local Authorities
  • Investigate the application of a range of market instruments to support the reduction of land and sea based sources

Maritime Activities

  • A "general prohibition" on all waste discharge from ships to the sea as part of the IMO's revision of Annex V of MARPOL 73/78.
  • Establishment of Special Area Status under MARPOL Annex V for all UK waters
  • Extend existing Port Waste Reception Facilities to include fishing vessels
  • No-special-fee reception facilities and compulsory discharging of marine litter in port for all vessels including fishing boats.
  • Encourage the return of trawled or dredged material to Port via the use of the marine licensing system and/or by market mechanisms
  • Improve enforcement of ship waste management plans and inspections of Garbage Record Books under the Merchant Shipping (Prevention of Pollution by Garbage and Sewage) Regulations 2008.
  • Implementation of a public register of legal notices, offences and fines relating to pollution of the marine environment from shipping.
  • An anonymous system to report vessels illegally dumping waste at sea
  • Incorporation of environmental responsibilities into the education and training of ship owners, ship operators, crews, port users, fishermen and recreational boat users
  • Incorporation of waste management systems into the design of new vessels
  • Research should be carried out into recycling and reuse facilities for fishing nets at ports
  • The introduction of net markers for UK fishing gear should be implemented
  • Incorporate marine litter reduction and management strategies into regional marine plans and marine protected areas under the Marine (Scotland) Act 2010


  • Investigate the causes for high levels of SRD on the Scottish coast
  • Improvement by water authorities to combined sewer overflow systems
  • Private outfalls to be identified, and adequately screened or treated
  • Proper enforcement of CSO discharge consents by the competent authority and strict penalties for failure to comply with discharge consents
  • Improve public education to encourage correct use of sewage system


  • Encourage the plastics industry to bring in a code of conduct for the safe handling, packaging and transportation of plastic pellets
  • Enforcement of the European Directive on packaging and packaging waste to reduce the environmental impact of packaging by reducing packaging at source, maximising the recovery and recycling of used packaging, and eliminating harmful materials
  • Introduce measures to reduce the use of disposable plastic consumer products
  • Encourage innovation in packaging and reduction in unnecessary packaging

Marine litter stems from two sources; land based sources and sea based sources and activities, each of which having a number of sub categories/sources within them for example riverine and wind blown inputs. The ability to identify a particular source from an individual litter item is difficult, and often depends on the state of the litter item or the possibility of multiple sources. As such, management needs to work across the land-sea interface as part of an integrated approach to address marine litter and stop it at source (Baxter et al., 2011). An example of this is the UNEP Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities initiative which seeks to prevent the degradation of the marine environment from land-based activities by directly addressing the connectivity between terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems. This approach needs to be advocated by a Scottish Marine Litter Strategy if it is to be effective in achieving its vision.

Whilst it is difficult to reliably source litter items, a number of initiatives have looked at the differing proportions of litter from each of the sources and their results show that the greatest amount is from activities on land. At the global scale it has frequently been reported that up to 80% is derived from land based sources, however it must be noted that this figure is generally based on beach surveys and thus may be more appropriate to state 80% of beach litter is from terrestrial sources. At the Scotland level source information (from beach cleans) shows 42.9% public, 7% fishing, 19.3% SRD, 1.8% shipping, 1% fly tipped, 0.2% medical and 27.9% non-sourced. Taking into account the difficulties in sourcing and the potential for error margins, these figures nonetheless do provide an indication of the proportions of litter and their sources and offers an invaluable basis for management. Clearly a large amount of marine litter is from land based sources, but equally given the relatively low number of marine users and scale of activities in the marine environment compared to terrestrial, litter from sea based sources represents a significant proportion and a focus on an 80:20 % split may be misleading.

Due to the diversity of activities and sources, it is clear any management needs to be equally wide in its scope and use a number of tools and instruments, including enforcement, market based instruments and industry action.

Strategic Direction 3: Contribute to a low carbon economy by treating 'waste as a resource' and seizing the economic and environmental opportunities associated with the zero waste plan


  • Development of a "waste to resource" tool kit targeted at coastal and maritime resource managers, supported by minimum standards for recycled materials
  • Provide incentives for Port and harbour reception facilities to drive separate collection and treatment of a range of resources in order to maximise their reuse and recycling value, and generate market supply
  • Ensure the Scottish Sustainable Procurement Action Plan identifies and supports opportunities for recycling and reuse of coastal and maritime sources of litter
  • Engage proactively with the Low Carbon Economic Strategy for Scotland (March 2011) in particular building opportunities for resource efficiency (energy, water, waste materials) and sustainable business practices across the economy
  • Actively seek investment for environmental and clean technologies that facilitate recovery, recycling, and environmental monitoring in coastal and maritime industries
  • Investigate the application of a range of market instruments to support waste as resource initiatives such as deposit schemes, plastic bag and product charges, tourist and coastal infrastructure levies, and positive subsidies

The Scottish Government's Zero Waste Plan and the recent Low Carbon Economic Strategy for Scotland set the policy architecture for turning waste into a resource. Preventing unnecessary resource use and transforming waste into a commercial opportunity will require the right mix of incentives and infrastructure to harness economic and environmental opportunities. When pursued, it will enable coastal and maritime sectors to reduce costs, operate more efficiently, and add value to resources with no previous commercial value.

The policy and infrastructure to support this transition is wider than coastal and maritime industries - it will require a whole of economy approach as specified in the recent Low Carbon Economic Strategy for Scotland. However, the coastal and maritime sector will play an important role, and each sector should explore the potential for resource efficiency innovation supported by incentives for action. For example, waste streams will require clear up front sorting practices to reduce contamination for high quality recyclate, and port and harbour facilities may provide a focus for collection, sorting, recovery. There are also potential gains from transformation of waste into energy sources. A Scottish Marine Litter Strategy should align with the broader move towards resource and waste efficiency and recovery. It should focus and implement market based instruments to move coastal and maritime industries and users towards a highly resource efficient and low carbon economy.

Strategic Direction 4: Improvement of monitoring at a Scottish scale


  • Prioritise an initial evaluation on the current state of research to give a scientific and technical basis for monitoring, knowledge gaps and priority areas for research
  • Ensure the implementation of an adaptive management cycle across all Strategic Directions and Actions. This would involve monitoring, identification of main sources, implement reduction and management actions, review success and adapt process as necessary.
  • Develop standardised monitoring approaches, to allow comparisons at the National and EU scales
  • Clarify organisational responsibility for marine litter monitoring
  • Investigate the use of fisheries research vessels to undertake seabed monitoring of marine litter during scientific trawls
  • Investigate a monitoring programme for microscopic plastic particles
  • Secure sufficient funding for litter monitoring
  • Alignment of NGO, Scottish, UK and international monitoring programs and data with UK Marine Monitoring and Assessment Strategy ( UKMMAS); MERMAN; ICES and OSPAR.

In order to prevent and reduce marine litter, a comprehensive monitoring programme is essential and as such reliable baseline data should be established. It is therefore necessary to implement regular monitoring strategies across the coastal and marine environment taking account of the full spectrum of litter sinks and pathways. This will help to provide information on the types, quantities and distribution of marine litter; to provide an insight into the associated problems and threats; to assess the effectiveness of pertinent legislation and management policies; to identify sources of marine litter; to explore public health issues related to the inappropriate disposal of waste; and to increase public awareness of the condition of the coastline.

This information is fundamental to the development and implementation of effective and efficient management approaches.

Strategic Direction 5: Engagement at the UK, EU, and international scales


  • Identify a lead agency to progress the fight on marine litter at the Scottish level, and provide a point of focus for coordination on devolved issues and with the global movement
  • A marine litter strategy should implement a coordinated approach amongst Scottish government departments, directorates, agencies and NGOs. This would involve resource sharing and prioritising actions amongst different stakeholders. A clear structure for implementation and accountability should be developed within the plan
  • Lead the way in minimising marine litter, both in Europe and internationally, by actively raising the issue with other competent authorities
  • Continue to participate actively in OSPAR's work on marine litter
  • Work with signatory countries to ensure the statutory enforcement of waste reduction measures under the OSPAR and MARPOL Conventions
  • Formulate coherent, and well coordinated regional marine litter action plans linked to clear objectives in the national marine plan
  • Secure sufficient funding for comprehensive engagement

Marine litter is a problem that cuts across a variety of scales and requires action from the international to local (and individual level). A Scottish Marine Litter Strategy should aim to influence actions within its direct sphere of control and more broadly at the UK, EU and international levels. The analysis highlights that many objectives and outcomes can be achieved within Scottish jurisdiction, as management of waste and litter is predominantly a devolved activity. When it comes to the maritime sector a mix of devolved and reserved activities will need to be addressed and will require cooperation and integration of policy and management, for example, the regulation of shipping and oil and gas and the implementation and effectiveness of the MARPOL and the EU Directive on Port Reception Facilities for Ship Waste. Scotland will be an important participant and should endeavour to take the lead within international initiatives such as OSPAR and cooperation within the MSFD on a regional sea basis to ensure Good Environmental Status. OSPAR is proposing amendments to marine litter monitoring proposing that members should extend marine litter monitoring to beaches in all OSPAR regions and consider including marine litter in the Coordinated Environmental Monitoring Program, with inclusion of monitoring of the water column and the seabed.

12.2 Indicators

The Marine Strategy Framework Directive requires EU Member States to put in place measures to achieve Good Environmental Status ( GES) by 2020. By July 2012 the UK is required to determine the characteristics of GES for UK waters and set appropriate targets and indicators for each qualitative descriptor to ensure these will be achieved.

Defra's Marine and Fisheries Directorate held a workshop which brought together marine experts and policy makers to:

  • Discuss what GES means for each Descriptor, and as a whole for UK marine waters;
  • Develop a consensus around options for developing GES targets and indicators.

It is felt the indicators suggested from this work would provide a benchmark to measure GES achievement at the Scotland and marine regional level.

It is proposed that GES for Marine Litter could be shown to be achieved if:

1) Litter and its degradation products currently present in, and entering into, Scottish waters is reduced over time and does not pose a significant risk to marine life at the population level, either as a result of direct mortality or by way of indirect impacts such as reduced fecundity and bioaccumulation within food chains.

2) Litter currently present in, and entering into, Scottish waters does not pose a direct or indirect unacceptable risk to human welfare and does not lead to significant detrimental economic impacts for industry and coastal 6 .

More specifically to ensure SMART targets these could include:

Characteristics of litter in the marine and coastal environment

  • [50%] overall reduction in the [volume/weight] of litter on coastlines from 2010 levels by 2020
  • [50%] reduction in [volume/weight/number] of plastic/fishing/sanitary litter items and sewage related viruses on coastlines from 2010 levels by 2020
  • Trend analysis shows a measurable reduction in the [volume/weight/number] of litter on the seafloor by 2020
  • No increase/slow rate of increase of micro-plastics by 2020

Impacts of litter on marine life

  • Less than 10% of northern fulmars ( Fulmarus glacialis) having more than 0.1 g plastic particles in their stomach
  • Amount of (species) population with litter 'obstacles/ entanglement' or scarring
  • No impact on cetaceans from marine litter at the population level by 2020

12.3 Options for delivery of a Scottish Marine Litter Plan

Option 1: Business as usual

The business as usual scenario stipulates that the existing framework in place for the management of marine litter will remain with no overarching reform process in place. This option assumes a "do nothing" option does not exist and Scotland must meet EU targets and obligations such as the MSFD and EU Directive on Waste. This Option assumes that existing work by Government continues in place but is not supplemented by further work. For example the Scottish waste and climate initiatives such as the Zero Waste Plan and the Low Carbon Economic Strategy for Scotland will be operational and addressing marine litter issues, albeit indirectly.

Option 1: Business as usual Disadvantages Advantages
  • Would risk continuation of the current situation, where conflicts and uncertainty about the management of marine litter remain
  • Risk the MSFD Descriptor 10 will not be achieved
  • Marine litter management will remain un-coordinated across several policy domains
  • The profile of marine litter will remain relatively low in the public eye
  • Marine litter initiatives may not feature prominently in marine planning.
  • Potential reforms to individual instruments may occur in isolation and remain uncoordinated.
  • Monitoring and data collection continues across a diverse user landscape and problems with compatibility continue e.g. ICES data.
  • Low cost model
  • Improvements to marine litter will occur indirectly from the variety of initiatives in other sectors such as Zero Waste Plan and the Low Carbon Economic Strategy

12.4 Option 2: Implement the strategy: low cost networked approach

In this option, a Scottish Marine Litter Strategy is prepared, with a focus on coordination, profile raising and networking amongst sectors and stakeholders. All relevant obligations and targets aim to be satisfied and additional coordination implements reforms and adds value. A lead authority is identified, but resources are targeted at providing support for a policy officer to administer the Strategy including the development of a stakeholder group and monitoring of outputs. Key elements of the proposed strategy are resourced through individual sectors - no central funding is available with the exception of supporting the network and its activities.

Option 2: Low cost networked approach Disadvantages Advantages
  • Key proposals that require coordination and leadership may not evolve. For example options for reform measures under SD2 for terrestrial users and maritime industries may lack leadership.
  • A risk that the profile of the marine litter problem is not raised sufficiently in public and private circles.
  • In the current climate of fiscal tightening this option may achieve both the coordination that is necessary for reducing marine litter and promoting reforms but using a model that is relatively low cost.
  • Obligations under MSFD and GES are addressed.
  • The strategy links to key areas of development including the Zero Waste Plan and the Low Carbon Economic Strategy

12.5 Option 3: Implement the strategy: high cost and centralised approach

Option 3 relates to the establishment of a centralised policy unit dedicated to the development and implementation of a Scottish Marine Litter Strategy. Resources are available for a dedicated policy officer, stakeholder engagement and the funding of select high profile initiatives the have a direct impact on reducing litter from source and encouraging a waste is resource ethic.

Option 3: Implement the strategy: high cost and centralised approach Disadvantages Advantages
  • A relatively high cost model that is resource intensive
  • May divert from other policy priorities such as Zero Waste Plan
  • Will require resources for coordination and delivery
  • May be difficult to implement in such times of change for marine planning and management in Scotland
  • A dedicated team is able to champion and drive the changes indicated in the actions
  • Committed resources potentially drive match funding from industry and EU.
  • A high profile public strategy raises the profile of marine litter and begins to shape behaviours
  • A central unit and office is established to coordinate the initiative and administer the steering group.

NB This work is in draft form and the disadvantages and advantages highlighted in the above tables are not necessarily comprehensive.


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