Twitter LinkedIn

Marine litter: Do something drastic, cut the plastic!

Seamus Girvan, a placement student at Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful, highlights the work needed to tackle the scourge of marine litter pollution in Irish and UK seas through the UK Marine Strategy.

June 2019

Marine Litter is at its highest levels since Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful (KNIB) began surveying for OSPAR in 2012. Volunteers have removed over 1,000,000 pieces of litter from our shores just from the survey beaches and in 2018 alone, have recorded an average of 625 pieces of litter per 100m while monitoring beaches, as detailed in their latest Marine Litter report.

One of the most common pieces of litter, not surprisingly, is plastic. We found that more than 78% of the items recorded were plastic. This included drinks containers, plastic bags, bottle caps and blue plastic string. Globally 5-13 million tonnes of plastic waste are entering our seas every year and 80% of this comes from land. Plastic pollution is in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. This must change. We need to urgently turn off the plastic tap at source.

The KNIB Marine Litter Data feeds into the reporting targets for the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD). MSFD requires EU Member States including us to ensure that: 'by 2020, properties and quantities of marine litter do not cause harm to the coastal and marine environment.'

There are three main indicators for Marine Litter, the results of which area:
  • Beach Litter - trend is steady and increasing, and the UK target has not been met. Plastic fragments, fishing-related litter, and packaging are the most common types of litter found.
  • Floating Litter - trend is steady, with no specific target set. Surveys show 60% of beached UK fulmars have more than 0.1g of plastic in their stomachs.
  • Seafloor Litter - more data is required to make a full assessment. Surveys show litter is widespread on the seafloor across UK seas with plastic as the predominant material.
The potential cost of this plastic pollution to Northern Ireland is estimated at £36 million per year to beach tourism and there is an estimated cost of £19,000 per fishing vessel too, due to lost time, gear and damage annually.

The revised UK Marine Strategy that will be the tool to deliver healthy seas by 2024 must include indicators for microplastics in seawater. However, given that plastic pollution often originates on land, this must be tied into regular monitoring of the coast, land and rivers. This will help build our understanding of the sinks and sources of marine litter as well as the impacts – but at the end of the day we are producing too much and we must demand less.

Together we must ensure UK Governments commit to:
  • Setting more ambitious, time bound indicators for marine litter in the UK Marine Strategy to develop our understanding of sources of marine litter, the impact and solutions to tackle these.
  • Eliminating single use plastics by 2025
  • Introducing Deposit Return Systems that function across the whole of the UK and include bottles and cartons of all sizes and materials.
  • Delivering an Extended Producer Responsibility that ensures producers pay for the pollution they create and encourages
  • Investing in developing a circular economy through improving technology and recycling and waste disposal infrastructure and
  • Encouraging members society to adopt a refillable, recyclable culture by implementing behaviour change campaigns and ensuring clear, consistent approaches across the whole of the UK.

Seamus Girvan, MSc placement student in Leadership in Sustainable Development at Queens University, based at Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful.

Follow at @KeepNIBeautiful.

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.