Marine Debris and Plastic Pollution

A pervasive problem

Don’t let the name trick you — marine debris is a freshwater problem, too. Whether we’re talking about marine debris, microplastics, or plastic pollution, the fundamental issue is the same: human materials showing up where they shouldn’t be. This applies to everything from shredded grocery bags on a riverbank and sunken powerboats at the bottom of Lake Michigan to microscopic threads of plastic in our drinking water.

“Marine debris” includes materials made of plastic, metal, rubber, paper, and cloth. Paper and natural cloth fibers can decompose quickly under the right conditions. Glass and plastics may persist in the environment for centuries or even millennia. According to one study, the United States and Canada dump 22 million pounds of plastic debris into the Great Lakes every year. We’re still figuring out what damage plastic pollution can cause, how to get rid of what’s already out there, and how to avoid making more.

Learn much more at the NOAA Marine Debris Program website.

What can you do?

One of the most important things you can do is shift your attitude toward plastic. Pay attention to the number of plastic items you buy, use, and throw away in a given day. Find small changes or new habits that can help you avoid a few of those items each day. If you can’t avoid bringing plastic into your life, pay attention to where it goes when you’re finished with it. Go beyond recycling — find creative ways to reduce, reuse, re-purpose, repair, or re-gift. A little extra time or effort can go a long way toward reducing the daily impact of our waste. Here are a few other practical tips:

  • When fishing, collect all your fishing line (monofilament) and discarded hooks. Some fishing areas have designated monofilament recycling stations. If you can’t find one nearby, put your fishing line in a trash can where it can’t blow back out.
  • If you smoke, dispose of your cigarette butts properly and don’t throw them into the water.
  • Lend a hand at beach clean-up events — or organize one of your own. Even if there isn’t a formal event going on, challenge yourself to grab at least three pieces of litter the next time you visit the beach or riverfront.
  • When you’re at a breezy beach or taking a boat ride, don’t let your lightweight trash blow or wash away. Dispose of them in bins that aren’t already full or overflowing.
  • Bring reusable alternatives to single-use plastics like water bottles, silverware, drinking straws, shopping bags, and plastic baggies.
  • Avoid toothpastes, body washes, hand soaps, and other products that contain plastic microbeads.
  • Instead of balloons, decorate with fresh flowers or recyclable paper products. If you must use balloons, tie them with twine or string made from natural materials that will biodegrade.
  • Choose clothing made of natural fibers such as cotton or rayon. If you have clothing made with synthetic fibers, consider buying a special laundry bag that traps microfibers, which can’t be filtered out by conventional wastewater treatment facilities.
  • Know your local recycling rules. Learn what needs to be cleaned first, what can be recycled as-is, and what’s just wishful thinking.