A Guide to Plastic in the Ocean

It’s a problem, but it’s one we can do something about.

infographic that shows plastics in the ocean

Plastics are the most common form of marine debris. They can come from a variety of land and ocean-based sources; enter the water in many ways; and impact the ocean and Great Lakes. Once in the water, plastic debris never fully biodegrades. Yellow text in the above graphic shows sources of plastic that eventually end up in the ocean. Orange text shows ways that these plastics move into the ocean. Red text provides examples of the harmful impacts of this debris. | Infographic Text

Plastic is everywhere: In your home, your office, your school — and your ocean. Among the top 10 kinds of trash picked up during the 2017 International Coastal Cleanup were food wrappers, beverage bottles, grocery bags, straws, and take out containers, all made of plastic. How did it all get there? Why is it a problem? What can we do?

Image showing plastic toys that had become marine debris

Help NOAA understand and prevent marine debris by recording what you pick up with the Marine Debris Tracker.

The problem with plastic

While it’s tough to say exactly how much plastic is in the ocean, scientists think there’s about 8 million metric tons of plastic making its way there every year. That’s the weight of nearly 90 aircraft carriers.

These plastics come in many different forms. Just think about all the plastic items you use daily: the toothbrush you grab first thing in the morning, the container your lunch comes in, or the bottle you drink water from after your workout.

All these things get used and, eventually, thrown out. Many plastic products are single-use items that are designed to be thrown out, like water bottles or take out containers. These are used and discarded quickly. If this waste isn’t properly disposed of or managed, it can end up in the ocean.

Unlike some other kinds of waste, plastic doesn’t decompose. That means plastic can stick around indefinitely, wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems. Some plastics float once they enter the ocean, though not all do. As the plastic is tossed around, much of it breaks into tiny pieces, called microplastics.

Image of a fishing net that has become marine debris bundled up on a beach

Much of the plastic in the ocean is in the form of abandoned fishing nets.

The first thing that comes to mind for many people when they think of microplastics are the small beads found in some soaps and other personal care products. But microplastics also include bits of what were once larger items.

Microfibers, shed from synthetic clothing or fishing nets, are another problematic form of microplastic. These fibers, beads, and microplastic fragments can all absorb harmful pollutants like pesticides, dyes, and flame retardants, only to later release them in the ocean.

What can you do?

There are many ways to keep plastic out of the ocean! Here are two strategies:

  • Reduce plastic use.

    Think about all the plastic items you use every day. Can you count them all? Look around you. How many plastic things can you see? Being more aware of how and why you use the plastics that you do is the first step to reducing plastic use. Commit to changing your habits by reducing your use of disposable and single-use plastic items, reusing items and/or recycling them.

  • Participate in a cleanup.

    Volunteer to pick up marine litter in your local community. Find a cleanup near you!

NOAA’s Marine Debris Program (MDP) works to understand how plastics — and other marine debris — get into our ocean, how they can be removed, and how they can be kept from polluting our marine environment in the future.


Infographic text:

Commonly found Plastics include cigarette butts, food wrappers, beverage bottles, straws, cups and plates, bottle caps, and single-use bags.

How to help? Reduce, reuse, recycle. Dispose of waste properly no matter where you are. Get involved and participate in local cleanups in your area. Remember that our land and sea are connected.

Impacts include:

  • Entanglement: Marine life can get caught and killed in derelict fishing nets and other plastic debris.
  • Ingestion: Animals can easily mistake plastic debris for food.

Sources include:

  • Boats/nets: Fishing gear can become marine debris when it is lost or abandoned.
  • Littering: Intentional littering or improper disposal of trash can cause marine debris.

Debris can enter the water via:

  • Rain and winds: Rain and wind can sweep debris into nearby waterbodies.
  • Streams and storm drains: Streams and storm drains can carry debris directly into the ocean or Great Lakes.

Microplastics are small plastics less that 5mm. They can come from large plastics breaking down, or can be produced as small plastics such as microbeads, which can be found in products such as toothpaste and face wash.

Link to original version of the 'Plastic in the Ocean' infographic

View an expanded version of the infographic that appears above from NOAA's Marine Debris program website.

Did you know?

While photodegradable plastics (plastics capable of being broken down by light) may break down from its first state (or created state), these plastics never completely degrade, but actually divide into tiny pieces called microplastics. Microplastics are the multi-colored pieces of plastic that can be found in a handful of sand on the beach or in the ocean. Scientists are still investigating the impact of microplastics on our ocean and marine life.

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Last updated:
09/20/18

Author: NOAA

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