NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

Keepin' the Sea Free of Debris!

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Southeast: Educators SORT it out

By: Leah Henry

The Southeast United States has over 18,000 miles of diverse tidal shoreline, including rocky cliffs, sand dunes, grasslands, wetlands, and mangrove forests. It provides valuable habitat to wildlife, as well as places for marine debris to accumulate.

On July 7, fifteen motivated elementary through high school level educators filed into the Project SORT Marine Debris Workshop with tote bags and smiles, eager to learn more about the environmental threat marine debris poses to their region and what they can do to prevent it. For one week in Savannah, Georgia these educators lived and breathed marine debris.

During the workshop, they heard about the latest marine debris science and research, and everyone had a chance to get their hands dirty during teacher-led activities. These educators learned about different types of marine debris from storm generated debris to microbeads, how to be better ocean stewards through citizen science and shoreline monitoring, and how to engage students in field microscope construction and marine debris video game design using existing or free resources.

“When we did the survey this week, we found tiny micro plastics in the sand from Tybee Island that came from the ocean, and when we did the macro plastics survey on Wassaw Island (a national wildlife refuge), we found litter and lots of nets, fishing line, and other debris that had washed up on shore.” said Casey Woods, elementary school teacher at Cedar Ridge.

In one activity, educators placed plastics of all kinds in a small salt water tank. They noted which types of plastic floated, sank, or became suspended in the middle. This information is important when we consider which animals come into contact with plastic in the wild. Some marine animals live and feed at the surface, while others feed on the bottom or somewhere in between. Pairing the plastic’s position with the animal’s location could help educators and their students ponder which types of plastic might pose the highest threat to a marine animal.

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The workshop also featured the Project SORT team’s demonstration of newly designed classroom activities at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, where workshop participants received copies to assist them in their classrooms.

We look forward to seeing how all the educators successfully incorporate marine debris into their existing curriculum and encourage their students to become ocean stewards too!

The Project SORT Workshop was led by Dodie Sanders and funded by the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Prevention through Outreach and Education grant.

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Not Just Hot Air: Celebrate July 4 Without Balloon Releases

By: Leah Henry

Releasing a helium-filled balloon into the air may seem liberating, symbolic, and even celebratory. It is also littering, because after balloons go up, they also come down.

Being that over 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered in water, the chance that the deflated balloon will land in a receptacle instead of our ocean is highly unlikely. In fact, volunteers all over the country often find balloons when doing marine debris cleanups.

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So why does this matter? Those lifeless pieces of rubber, latex, or plastic wind up in the ocean, where marine animals may mistake them for food and eat them – blocking the animal from eating the food it needs to stay alive. Sadly, the strings or ribbons can wrap around their necks, fins, or flippers, cutting into their flesh causing severe damage or preventing them from hunting.

If you use balloons for a celebration, please don’t release them into the air. For outdoor celebrations, here are some alternatives:

  • Plant a ceremonious tree.
  • Use pinwheels from used materials.
  • Blow bubbles.
  • Dedicate a park bench.

If you do use balloons, secure them tightly and think twice before you let go!

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This 4th of July, Don’t Feed the Animals…Your Plastic

By: Dianna Parker

For many Americans, the Fourth of July holiday weekend is the prime time to head to nearest river, lake, or beach and picnic outdoors. If you’re like me, you do both activities at the same time. What could be better than drinking lemonade and eating summertime food with a view of the water? Top 10 Marine Debris Items Collected.

While you’re out there having fun this year, we challenge you to do your part and keep any trash from your picnic out of the water. According to data from last year’s International Coastal Cleanup, most of the top items cleaned up from shorelines across the country were plastic and food-related.  Cigarette butts (made of plastic!) were number one, but take a look at the rest. Food wrappers, plastic  beverage bottles and caps, straws, and grocery bags round out the top six. Beverage cans also make the list at number 10.

These statistics mean we must do more to better manage our trash, and it can start with you. Here are some tips to keep in mind for your picnic “pack in and pack out”:

1. Find alternatives to single-use plastics. If you have a reusable thermos for drinks or a lunchbox for stashing sandwiches, then use them!

2. If you use any recyclable plastics, make sure they make it into a recycling bin. We can’t recover plastics if they’re sitting in landfills.

3. Before you leave, scan your picnic area for any rogue trash that fell on the ground and pick it up.

4. If a trash can is overflowing, then find another one. Wind, rain, or scavengers could scatter the overflowing trash and increase its chances of reaching the ocean. In other words, don’t do this:

An overflowing trash can on the beach in North Carolina: Credit: Danielle Richardet

An overflowing trash can on the beach in North Carolina: Credit: Danielle Richardet

Taking these easy steps will not only keep the beach clean for others to enjoy, but it may help out wildlife as well. Here’s the thing about plastic: when it goes in the water, it doesn’t degrade. Instead, it breaks apart into tiny pieces. Some species of animals mistake these tiny pieces for food, and eating them can cause serious injury. They will thank you for keeping their habitat clean, and so will we.

Happy Independence Day, and happy picnicking!

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Two local artists put marine debris on display

By: Keith Cialino

Each new Atlantic storm pounds the shore with empty bottles, lost cigarette lighters, forgotten beach toys, discarded coffee cups, and enough plastic utensils to stock a small cafeteria. Now, local artists are using marine debris as a new medium to express their views.

The NOAA Restoration Center and NOAA Marine Debris Program organized an exhibit at the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office (GARFO) featuring  local artwork created from marine debris.

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The Angry Ocean Project, by Kathy Abbott, is made from a combination of trash found on local beaches and real marine animal artifacts (fish, shellfish, etc.). Kathy’s creatures emerge from the ocean to show the toll that plastic pollution has on marine life. Each week in June, a different family of creatures rotates through the NOAA building’s first floor.

Catch What Whales Shouldn’t Have to Eat by Nina Samoiloff: This project is part archaeology, photography, sculpture, and environmentalism. It serves as a collective testament to the blind eye we turn to excess packaging and products and the often careless disposal of them. In her artwork and in her blog, CatchWhatWhaleShouldntHavetoEat, Nina documents her daily collection and discoveries.

The public can view their work Monday-Friday, now through July 11 from 8:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. at the NOAA GARFO building at 55 Great Republic Drive, Gloucester, MA.

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Illinois Bans Plastic Microbeads from Personal Care Products

By: Nancy Wallace

A microbead found in Kittery, ME. Photo: Rozalia Project.

A microbead found in Kittery, ME. Photo: Rozalia Project.

This month, Illinois became the first state to ban the production, manufacture, or sale of personal care products containing plastic microbeads. The industry-supported ban comes after a study released last year by researchers at 5 Gyres and SUNY Fredonia showed high levels of microplastics, including the beads, in the Great Lakes.

State legislatures in California, Minnesota, New York, and Ohio are considering bans or other legislation on plastic microbeads, citing concern over how these plastic pieces will impact fish and other wildlife. Some major manufacturers, including Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, and L’Oreal have also pledged to phase plastic microbeads out of their products and search for alternatives.

Many face washes and body scrubs contain tiny plastic spheres – sometimes labeled “microscrubbers” – meant to exfoliate skin. Take a look at the ingredient lists on personal care bottles; if they say polyethylene and polypropylene, then there is plastic in them. Once rinsed off, the beads go down the drain. In most cases, they are so tiny that they slip through wastewater treatment plants and into nearby waterways.

When microbeads enter the marine environment or Great Lakes, they are considered a form of “microplastic” marine debris. Microplastics come from several sources. They are sometimes manufactured small, such as microbeads or resin pellets used in plastic manufacturing. Or, they are shards of what used to be larger plastic items, such as bottles or containers that found their way into the environment. NOAA defines microplastics as any plastic smaller than 5 mm in size.

Plastics never really go away when they’re in rivers, oceans, or lakes. Instead, they can last decades, fragmenting over and over again into small pieces. There’s an unknown amount of microplastics in our environment, but they are turning up everywhere, even in Arctic sea ice.

The big deal is that some species of marine life mistake plastic for food, especially bite-sized microplastics. Scientists across the world, including here at NOAA, are working to better understand exactly how microplastics and the chemicals in them impact wildlife once they’re ingested – or if the chemicals transfer through the food web.

Removing unnecessary plastic microbeads in cosmetics won’t take care of the microplastics problem in the ocean and Great Lakes entirely, but it eliminates one known source. The recent movement in Illinois is a great example of how industry, government, non-profits, and academia can come together to implement action. As we continue finding solutions to marine debris, let’s remember that these kinds of collaborative efforts are critical to our success.

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California Students Present at Ocean Plastics Pollution Summit

By: Sherry Lippiatt

An amazing thing happened at the Monterey Bay Aquarium this spring.

In the final piece of a NOAA Marine Debris Program and Monterey Bay Aquarium effort, students gathered to present their innovative year-long projects on reducing the amount of plastic that enters the ocean.

This talented collection of students reached 19,605 people and brought even more results from projects at schools across the region:

Quantifying Action Project Impact

Quantifying Action Project Impact

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Apple Includes Marine Debris Tracker in “Apps We Can’t Live Without”

By: Dianna Parker

Instagram, Candy Crush, Pinterest, Tumblr… Marine Debris Tracker.

These are all “Apps We Can’t Live Without,” according to a new video Apple debuted at the Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday. The Marine Debris Tracker is a smartphone application co-developed by Jenna Jambeck at the University of Georgia and the NOAA Marine Debris Program. It lets you quickly log and report marine debris you find anywhere in the world. Take a look and download it today:

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The End is In Sight: Summer Should Bring Less Debris to Pacific NW

By: Dianna Parker

Our partners in the Pacific Northwest have noticed an increase in marine debris on shorelines this past month, including small vessels that likely washed out to sea during the tsunami in Japan in 2011. Four boats arrived in Washington over the Memorial Day weekend alone. The flurry of activity may seem unusual and sudden, coming after a relatively long stretch where we still saw some debris — but not this much.  So what’s the deal? Why are we getting a spike now?

Here’s what Amy MacFadyen, oceanographer and modeler in the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division, has to say about possible reasons for the increase:

This seasonal arrival of marine debris—ranging from small boats and fishing floats to household cleaner bottles and sports balls—on West Coast shores seems to be lasting longer into the spring than last year. As a result, coastal managers dealing with the large volume of debris on their beaches are wondering if the end is in sight.


Beachcombers know the best time to find treasure on the Pacific Northwest coast is often after winter storms. Winter in this region is characterized by frequent rainfall (hence, Seattle’s rainy reputation) and winds blowing up the coast from the south or southwest. These winds push water onshore and cause what oceanographers call “downwelling”—a time of lower growth and reproduction for marine life because offshore ocean waters with fewer nutrients are brought towards the coast. These conditions are also good for bringing marine debris from out in the ocean onto the beach, as was the case for this giant Japanese dock that came ashore in December 2012.

So, to recap: Winter winds push nutrient-depleted water onshore and bring debris with it. As Pacific Northwest residents may recall, there were a series of big winter storms in February and March.

Amy goes on to describe a period known as the “spring transition” that can occur anytime between March and June, where a change in winds ushers nearshore surface water back offshore. Then, nutrient-rich water moves in (we call this “upwelling”). The timing of this transition period may also affect the volume of marine debris reaching Pacific Northwest beaches. The later the transition, the more time the debris pushed toward shore from winter storms has to reach shore.

According to researchers, we’re in that transition period now, which means the end to the spike is near:

Interestingly, the model shows many fewer particles came ashore in the spring of 2013 than in the other two years. This may be related to the timing of the spring transition. According to researchers at Oregon State University, the transition to summer’s upwelling conditions occurred approximately one month earlier in 2013 (early April).


The good news for coastal managers—and those of us who enjoy clean beaches—is that according to this indicator, we are finally transitioning from one of the soggiest springs on record into the upwelling season. This should soon bring a drop in the volume of marine debris on our beaches, hopefully along with some sunny skies to get out there and enjoy our beautiful Pacific Northwest coast.


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First-Ever Great Lakes Marine Debris Action Plan Released

By: Sarah Lowe

Last year, the Great Lakes made headlines after researchers found large concentrations of microplastics in them, in some cases in larger quantities than reported in the ocean. While this was news to some people – marine debris in the Great Lakes?! – plastics and other litter, abandoned vessels, and derelict fishing gear have been a long-standing problem for the world’s largest surface freshwater source.

The Great Lakes community recognized the marine debris issue and has been working for the past three years to tackle it. Today, on their behalf, the NOAA Marine Debris Program unveils the Great Lakes Land-based Marine Debris Action Plan —the first of its kind for the region.

The action plan provides scientists, governments, stakeholders, and decision makers a road map for strategic progress to see that the Great Lakes, its coasts, people, and wildlife are free from the impacts of marine debris. It centers around a mission to combat debris through an increased understanding of the problem, preventative actions, reductions in impacts, education and outreach, and collaborative efforts from diverse groups.

Marine debris is more commonly thought of as an ocean problem, but the Great Lakes region, with its complex system of habitats, wetlands, rivers, and tributaries, is also affected. This plan focuses on debris generated on land, which is often blown, swept, or washed out into the lakes. It comes from littering, dumping in rivers and streams, storm water discharges, poor waste management practices, and industrial losses during production, transportation, and processing.

The plan encompasses work that dedicated partners, including the NOAA Marine Debris Program, will undertake in the next five years (2014-2019).  Due to the complexity of marine debris issues, there is a role for everyone in the implementation of this plan, including the private citizen who picks up litter from our beaches and watersheds; federal, state, county, and local government agencies that are mandated to address the threat of marine debris; private businesses and industry that get involved to serve their communities; and nongovernmental and academic organizations that support a wide range of activities like cleanup, research, education, and outreach.

To view the plan, visit the NOAA Marine Debris Program website.

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Youth Help Protect Wildlife from Fishing Line Entanglement

Guest Blogger: Sean Russell,  founder and director of the Stow It-Don’t Throw It Project.

Monofilament fishing line, when improperly disposed of, poses a serious threat to our coastal wildlife. Fishing line, made of thin, hard-to-see plastic, is difficult to break, lasts a long time in the environment and can entangle dolphins, sea turtles, manatees, and birds. Many states have implemented fishing line recycling programs because of the wildlife entanglements caused by monofilament fishing line. Recycling bins are placed on fishing piers and at marinas to provide anglers a safe place to recycle their used fishing line. The line is periodically collected from the bins by volunteers and sent to recycling facilities that can turn the line into fish habitat structures and plastic products.

These programs provide a simple solution to the problem of recycling fishing line when anglers are near an appropriate shore-side receptacle. However, people fishing from boats or kayaks, or those fishing in remote locations, still need a place to safely store their used fishing line until they are able to reach a recycling bin.

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The Stow It-Don’t Throw It Project is a youth-driven marine debris prevention and ocean conservation program launched in 2008 to address this issue. This project engages youth in the assembly and distribution of personal-sized fishing line recycling containers. These containers, created by a researcher at Mote Marine Laboratory, are made from repurposed tennis ball tubes and provide anglers with a place to safely store their used fishing line, keeping it out of the environment and away from marine life, until they can properly recycle it.

The personal recycling bin provides anglers with a conservation tool they need to help prevent fishing line from entering marine and aquatic ecosystems, and also serves as an educational outreach tool to help raise awareness about the importance of this issue. Through the project, young people involved in youth organizations, school groups, zoo and aquarium summer camps, as well as environmental conservation volunteer programs with non-profit organizations and government agencies are learning about fishing line entanglement and are empowered to address this issue by assembling and distributing the recycling bins. To date, youth and adult volunteers across Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Texas, Colorado, California, and Alaska have worked on this project, helping to assemble and distribute over 12,000 personal-sized fishing line recycling bins.

The Stow It-Don’t Throw It Project provides educational resources on marine debris prevention free to students and educators interested in raising awareness about this topic in their community.

If you’d like to become involved in the Stow It-Don’t Throw It Project, and support their efforts, like the project on Facebook at, or follow on Twitter @stowdontthrow! Additionally, students can participate in the annual Youth Ocean Conservation Summit, an event designed to train students how to launch their own ocean conservation projects and give them the skills necessary to make these projects successful.


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