Marine litter strategy

This refreshed marine litter strategy outlines new priority actions to tackle marine litter in Scotland, building on the work already conducted through the original strategy.

1. Introduction

Definition of marine litter

1.1 Marine litter is any persistent, manufactured or processed solid material discarded, disposed of, or abandoned in the marine and coastal environment. Marine litter consists of items that have been made or used by people and deliberately discarded or unintentionally lost into the sea or coastline, including such materials transported into the marine environment from land by rivers, drainage or sewerage systems, or by wind. Typical examples are plastics, wood, metals, glass, rubber, clothing and paper. This definition does not include semi-solid remains of, for example, mineral and vegetable oils, paraffin and chemicals that sometimes litter the sea and shores[1].


1.2 Marine litter poses a number of problems across the economy, environment and society. These detrimental effects include damage to marine wildlife, as well as wider ecosystem deterioration, public health issues, impacts on aesthetics, and a wider range of economic impacts across industries reliant on our coastal and marine environment.

1.3 Marine litter threatens the realisation of a shared vision for 'clean, healthy, safe, productive, and biologically diverse marine and coastal environments, managed to meet the long term needs of nature and people'. It may also impact upon Scotland's strategic objectives, most notably the drive to become a greener, wealthier and fairer, safer and stronger, and healthier Scotland. It is essential that Scotland's marine and coastal resource is protected from the damage caused by marine litter.

1.4 The first cycle of the Marine Litter Strategy for Scotland was consulted upon in July to September 2013, and a final version of the strategy was published in August 2014.

1.5 An updated draft of the Marine Litter Strategy was published for consultation from 29 December 2021 to 22 March 2022. All responses received were considered and necessary amendments were incorporated into the final strategy.

1.6 This updated strategy reflects on progress made since 2014, and the continuing and new actions necessary to meet our vision and goals. The strategy sets out Scotland's approach to ensuring that measurable steps are taken to reduce sources of marine litter as well as to support removal initiatives, in order to bring ecological, economic and social benefits.

1.7 There are a wide scope of actions currently underway that contribute to the strategy. Many of these initiatives are conducted by volunteers, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), industry and government agencies. This work makes a vital contribution, and its continuation is intrinsic to the strategy. The action plan that accompanies this cycle of the strategy (see the Supporting Documents section) is limited to new and high priority actions only. We acknowledge the breadth of work already underway, and focus the efforts of this cycle of the strategy on taking additional steps in new areas of work, to extend positive action to further reduce marine litter.

1.8 Embedded in the strategy are the objectives of working towards the Scottish Government's goals of becoming a net zero nation, achieving a circular economy where waste is treated as a resource, enhancing the marine environment through actions relating to the blue economy, and reducing human impact on the environment. Notwithstanding the UK's exit from the EU, Scotland continues to strive to meet or exceed EU targets, including those relating to marine litter.

Current activity

1.9 A range of legislation and regulatory tools exist to inform and implement a Scottish Marine Litter Strategy, from the national, regional, and international scales. These include, but are not limited to:

  • International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). In particular Annex V Prevention of Pollution by Garbage from Ships[2];
  • EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive[3];
  • EU Directive on Port Reception Facilities for Ship-generated Waste and Cargo Residues[4];
  • The Bathing Waters (Scotland) Regulations 2008[5];
  • EU Water Framework Directive[6];
  • Environmental Protection Act 1990[7];
  • The Merchant Shipping and Fishing Vessels (Port Waste Reception Facilities) Regulations 2003[8];
  • Marine (Scotland) Act 2010[9]. The management of litter, while not directly specified under the Act, falls under the scope of marine planning;
  • The Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2012[10];
  • EU Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive[11];
  • The Marine Strategy Regulations 2010[12]
  • UK Marine Strategy. This strategy comprises Parts One[13], Two[14] and Three[15]: updates to Parts One[16] and Two[17] have been published in October 2019 and March 2021, respectively; and an update to Part Three is due to be published in late 2022;
  • OSPAR North-East Atlantic Environment Strategy[18];
  • United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14[19]: to 'conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development';
  • EU Single-Use Plastics Directive[20];
  • The Merchant Shipping (Prevention of Pollution by Garbage from Ships) Regulations 2020[21]

1.10 The Scottish Government's first National Litter Strategy 'Towards a Litter-Free Scotland'[22] was published in June 2014. The National Litter Strategy is being refreshed as a National Litter and Flytipping Strategy, recognising that these are separate issues and require a tailored approach to each. This updated strategy focuses on four key themes: behaviour change, infrastructure and services, enforcement, and data and research. It has strong links with the Marine Litter Strategy as its success will result in a reduction of land based litter which can enter our seas.

The UK Marine Strategy

1.11 The Marine Strategy Regulations 2010 are the main driver for addressing the problem of marine and coastal litter within Scotland and the UK as a whole. The Regulations require the four UK administrations to produce a joint Marine Strategy with the overall aim of achieving or maintaining Good Environmental Status (GES) in our seas. Given the cross-boundary nature of issues such as marine litter we must also co-operate with other countries sharing our seas.

1.12 The UK Marine Strategy is split into three parts which are required to be reviewed and updated every six years. The first cycle was published between 2012 and 2015:

  • Part One: this provides an assessment of UK marine waters, sets objectives for GES, and outlines targets and indicators to measure progress towards GES (update published in October 2019);
  • Part Two: this sets out the monitoring programmes we will use to monitor our progress against the targets and indicators set out in Part One (update published in March 2021);
  • Part Three: this sets out a programme of measures and actions we will take to achieve or maintain GES (update due to be published in late 2022).

1.13 For ease, the UK Marine Strategy defines GES in terms of 11 descriptors, one of which relates to marine litter. The high level objective for Descriptor 10 requires that 'the amount of litter and associated degradation products is reducing, and levels do not pose a significant risk to the environment and marine life'.

1.14 This objective recognises the limitations in data currently available to support a target for a specific percentage reduction in coastal litter and, based on current expert advice, has been included in the UK's set of GES targets. Table 1 describes the targets and indicators for 2018-2024.

Table 1: UK Marine Strategy Part One updated targets and indicators for Descriptor 10

Descriptor 10 Marine Litter: Perspective for 2018 to 2024

High level objective for GES:

The amount of litter and its degradation products on coastlines and in the marine environment is reducing and levels do not pose a significant risk to the environment and marine life.

Criteria and targets for measuring progress towards GES in future:

Presence of litter (beaches) - A decrease in the total amount of the most common categories of litter found on surveyed beaches.

Presence of litter (seabed) - A decrease in the number of items of litter on the seabed.

Presence of floating litter - A downward trend in the number of northern fulmars with more than 0.1 g of plastic particles in their stomach.

Presence of micro-litter - Develop an appropriate indicator to measure micro-litter in the marine environment.

Operational targets:

We will work nationally and with other countries in OSPAR to:

a) establish the feasibility of setting appropriate reduction targets and/or threshold values for litter on beaches, on the sea floor, sea surface, and microplastics, taking into account regional or sub-regional specificities;

b) develop an indicator for micro-litter in sediment;

c) establish, if practicable, whether the amount of litter and micro-litter ingested by marine animals adversely affects the health of the species concerned; and

d) develop appropriate measures to reduce litter types harmful to the marine environment.

Indicators to be used to assess the status:

  • Beach litter surveys - OSPAR
  • Floating litter using plastic in fulmar stomachs - OSPAR
  • Seafloor litter surveys - OSPAR

1.15 The updated Part One acknowledges that, whilst progress has been made on tackling marine litter, measures need longer to take affect and as a consequence it is considered that GES has not yet been achieved for marine litter.



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