U.S. flag An official website of the United States government.

dot gov icon Official websites use .gov

A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

https icon Secure websites use HTTPS

A small lock or https:// means you’ve safely connected to a .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Where does marine debris come from?

Single-use plastics removed from the Great Lakes (Credit: NOAA).

Single-use plastics removed from the Great Lakes (Credit: NOAA).

We have created, and continue to create, all the marine debris that exists today. It enters our waterways, ocean, and Great Lakes in many ways.

Marine debris comes from littering, poor waste management practices, stormwater discharge, and extreme natural events like tsunamis and hurricanes. Whether it is properly thrown away or dumped on purpose, debris from land can find its way into our ocean and Great Lakes. This could happen at the beach, while boating on the water, or even many miles inland where trash can be blown and swept into waterways.

Marine debris is a global problem. It is very difficult to say how much debris enters the ocean and Great Lakes. Once marine debris is in the ocean, it is challenging to understand where it came from, where it goes, or how much is there.

A study in 2016 estimated that as much as 23 million metric tons of plastic waste entered the ocean and waterways around the world. That is the equivalent of more than 150,000 blue whales in a single year! This number may feel huge, but it’s not the whole picture. It doesn’t include marine debris items not made of plastic, or ocean-based marine debris, such as lost fishing gear and vessels.

Marine debris can also come from ocean-based sources, like trash, fishing gear, and other items lost off of boats or platforms at sea.