A Brief History of Marine Litter Research

Abstract This chapter traces the history of marine litter research from anecdotal reports of entanglement and plastic ingestion in the 1960s to the current focus on microplastics and their role in the transfer of persistent organic pollutants to marine food webs. The reports in Science of large numbers of plastic pellets in the North Atlantic in the early 1970s stimulated research interest in plastic litter at sea, with papers reporting plastics on the seafloor and impacting a variety of marine animals. The focus then shifted to high concentrations of plastic litter in the North Pacific, where novel studies reported the dynamics of stranded beach litter, the factors influencing plastic ingestion by seabirds, and trends in fur seal entanglement. By the early 1980s, growing concern about the potential impacts of marine litter resulted in a series of meetings on marine debris. The first two international conferences held in Honolulu by the US National Marine Fisheries Service played a key role in setting the research agenda for the next decade. By the end of the 1980s, most impacts of marine litter were reasonably well understood, and attention shifted to seeking effective solutions to tackle the marine litter problem. Research was largely restricted to monitoring trends in litter to assess the effectiveness of mitigation measures, until the last decade, when concern about microplastics coupled with the discovery of alarming densities of small plastic particles in the North Pacific 'garbage patch' (and other mid-ocean gyres) stimulated the current wave of research.

Keywords Plastic History Environmental impact Entanglement Ingestion Microplastics


From messages in bottles to exotic tropical seeds washing up on temperate shores (Guppy 1917; Muir 1937), the dispersal of floating debris at sea has long fascinated people. As early as 1870 Jules Verne provided a graphic description of how floating debris accumulates in ocean gyres in the chapter on the Sargasso Sea in his famous novel Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. However, this review focuses on the last 50 years because from the perspective of environmental impacts the history of marine litter research is closely linked to the development of plastics. Plastics are a diverse group of synthetic polymers that have their origins in the late 19th century, but which really came to the fore in the mid-twentieth century. Their low density, durability, excellent barrier properties and relatively low cost make plastics ideal materials for a wide range of manufacturing and packaging applications. Their versatility has seen the amount of plastic produced annually increase rapidly over the last few decades to an estimated 288 million tonnes in 2012 (Fig. 1.1), and this total continues to grow at about 4 % per year (PlasticsEurope 2013). However, the properties that make plastics so useful also make inappropriately handled waste plastics a significant environmental threat. Their durability means that they persist in the environment for many years, and their low density means that they are readily dispersed by water and wind, sometimes travelling thousands of kilometres from source areas (Ryan et al. 2009). As a result, plastic wastes are now ubiquitous pollutants in even the most remote areas of the world (Barnes et al. 2009).

Over the last 60 years we have seen a major shift in perception surrounding the use of plastics, especially in one-off applications. Once seen as the savior of the American housewife (Life Magazine 1955), there are now calls to treat waste plastics as hazardous materials (Rochman et al. 2013a), reiterating a point first made by Bean (1987) that persistent plastic wastes qualify as hazardous wastes under the US Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Most of the threats posed by plastics occur at sea (Gregory 2009; Thompson et al. 2009), where waste plastics tend to accumulate (Barnes et al. 2009; Ryan et al. 2009). This chapter briefly summarises the history of marine litter research. Trends in the numbers of

Fig. 1.1 Growth in global plastic production from 1950 to 2012 (millions of tonnes, adapted from PlasticsEurope 2013)

Fig. 1.2 Numbers of papers on different aspects of the marine litter issue published in five-year intervals over the last 50 years (based on a Web of Science search and unpublished bibliography; note that the final column only covers three years, 2011–2013)

papers on the marine litter problem (Fig. 1.2) show the growth in research from its infancy in the late 1960s, when it was still treated largely as a curiosity, through the 1970s and 1980s, when most of the threats to marine systems were identified, baseline data were collected on the distribution, abundance and impacts of marine litter, and policies were formulated to tackle the problem. Research tapered off in the 1990s, despite ongoing increases in the amounts of marine litter (Ryan and Moloney 1990, 1993), and it is only in the last decade or so that there has been a resurgence in research interest, following alarming reports of mid-ocean 'garbage patches' (Moore et al. 2001) and increasing appreciation of the pervasive nature of very small 'microplastic' particles (<0.5 mm) and their potential impacts on the health of marine ecosystems (Oehlmann et al. 2009; Thompson et al. 2009).

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