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Keepin' the Sea Free of Debris!

The origin and evolution of the term "marine debris"

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We received a comment on a recent post from a reader asking us to talk about the origin and evolution of the term “marine debris”.  Here is our response:


The term marine debris has been used for at least 25 years to refer to manmade materials that have been discarded or lost into the ocean . The earliest references we are familiar with come from the 1984 Workshop on the Impacts and Fate of Marine Debris (Shomura and Yoshida 1985). This workshop came out of a 1982 request from the Marine Mammal Commission to the National Marine Fisheries Service to examine the impacts of marine debris. At that time, the focus of marine debris research was primarily derelict fishing gear. Keep in mind that this was prior to implementation of both the high-seas driftnet ban and MARPOL Annex V.

Other terms used prior to 1984 include the following:

  • “man-made debris” (Feder et all 1978),
  • “synthetic debris” (Balazs 1979),
  • “plastic litter” (Merrell 1980),
  • “floating plastic debris” (Morris 1980),
  • “man-made objects” (Shaughnessy 1980, Venrick et al 1973), and
  • “debris” (Scordino and Fisher 1983).

It would appear that the term “debris” was being used in these article by academics, perhaps in the sense of its third definition in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary: 3 : something discarded : rubbish.  Alternatively, it may have been used in the way you suggest, analogous to other, natural items that make their way into the ocean but distinguished by the terms man-made, synthetic, or plastic.  We were not able to find links to the plastic industry in any of the references we mention above.

The term “marine debris” encompasses more than plastic, including metals (derelict vessels, dumped vehicles, beverage containers), glass (light bulbs, beverage containers, older fishing floats), and other materials (rubber, textiles, lumber). Plastic almost certainly makes up the majority of floating debris, but in some areas, the debris on the ocean floor may contain sizeable amounts of those other denser debris types.

Some examples of non-plastic marine debris include this picture of items recovered by the Massena Rescue Squad, from Massena New York, during the International Coastal Cleanup in 2009.  Items included the a wheelchair, barrels, and other unidentifiable items.  Photo courtesy of the Massena Rescue Squad,

Derelict vessel in American Samoa. (Photo courtesy of D. Helton, NOAA)

It seems that starting with the 1984 Workshop on the Impacts and Fate of Marine Debris, held by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the term “marine debris” became more common. Subsequent workshops and international conferences used the term “marine debris,” and when the Congress passed a bill in 2006 to create a program to address this form of pollution, it was called the Marine Debris Research, Prevention, and Reduction Act. One of the requirements in the bill was for NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard to promulgate a definition of marine debris for the purposes of the Act.

As mandated by the Act, USCG and NOAA drafted and published a definition of marine debris in September 2009. The definition is this:  Any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or the Great Lakes.

No one from the plastics industry was involved in this process.  The definition focuses on the man-made nature of items and their persistence, and not on how the items have ended up in the ocean or Great Lakes.  It is also important that the item be solid to count as marine debris; the ocean has many issues associated with non-solid items like oil and chemical spills and non-point source pollution, and as this is already covered by other legislation and offices, we wanted to make sure there was a clear line of delineation between different types of marine pollution.

Marine debris actually does include a lot of different materials, and the visibility of floating plastics probably skews public perception.  Do 30 buoyant plastic bottles do as much habitat damage and harm to biota as 10 sunken tires?  How much debris is out there? Which type of debris does the most damage?  Does one derelict net draped across a coral colony more harmful than fifteen aluminum cans sitting on the corals?  How much damage does a “ghost net” do to habitat and biota, and as it breaks down into smaller pieces does it pose a smaller or greater concern by potentially leaching plastic additives?  These are important types of questions to ask and answer.

That is why we are focusing on parts of the puzzle like standardized methodologies and new technologies for detecting debris — to be able to holistically assess the problem and determine relative impacts.  No doubt plastics make up a large percentage of marine debris, but to refer to the problem as “plastic pollution” would leave out a host of other debris items that are routinely found.

Balazs, G. H. 1979. Synthetic debris observed on a Hawaiian monk seal. ’Elepaio 20(3):43-44.
Feder, H. M., S. C. Jewett, and J. R. Hilsinger. 1978. Man-made debris on the Bering Sea floor. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 9:52-53.
Merrell, T. R., Jr. 1980. Accumulations of plastic litter on beaches of Amchitka Island, Alaska. Mar. Environ. Res. 3:171-184.
Morris, R. J. 1980. Floating plastic debris in the Mediterranean. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 11:125
Scordino, J., and R. Fisher. 1983. Investigations on fur seal entanglement in net fragments, plastic bands and other debris in 1981 and 1982, St. Paul Island, Alaska. (Background paper submitted to the 26th Annual Meeting of the Standing Scientific Committee of the North Pacific Fur Seal Commission, 28 March-8 April 1983, held in Wash., D.C.)
Shaughnessy, P. D. 1980. Entanglement of cape fur seals with man-made objects. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 11:332-336.
Shomura, R.S. and H.O. Yoshida (eds.) Proceedings of the Workshop on the Fate and Impact of Marine Debris 27-29 November 1984, Honolulu, Hawaii, July 1985. NOAA-TM-NMFS-SWFC-54.
Venrick, E. L., T. W. Backman, W. C. Bartram, C. J. Platt, M. S. Thornhill, and R. E. Yates. 1973. Man-made objects on the surface of the central Pacific ocean. Nature 241:271.

Author: NOAA Marine Debris Program

The NOAA Marine Debris Program envisions the global ocean and its coasts, users, and inhabitants free from the impacts of marine debris. Our mission is to investigate and solve the problems that stem from marine debris, in order to protect and conserve our nation's marine environment, natural resources, industries, economy, and people.

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