I Abiotic Aspects of Marine Litter Pollution

Global Distribution, Composition and Abundance of Marine Litter

François Galgani, Georg Hanke and Thomas Maes

Abstract Marine debris is commonly observed everywhere in the oceans. Litter enters the seas from both land-based sources, from ships and other installations at sea, from point and diffuse sources, and can travel long distances before being stranded. Plastics typically constitute the most important part of marine litter sometimes accounting for up to 100 % of fllitter. On beaches, most studies have demonstrated densities in the 1 item m−2 range except for very high concentrations because of local conditions, after typhoons or fl events. Floating marine debris ranges from 0 to beyond 600 items km−2. On the sea bed, the abundance of plastic debris is very dependent on location, with densities ranging from 0 to >7700 items km−2, mainly in coastal areas. Recent studies have demonstrated that pollution of microplastics, particles <5 mm, has spread at the surface of oceans, in the water column and in sediments, even in the deep sea. Concentrations at the water surface ranged from thousands to hundred thousands of particles km−2. Fluxes vary widely with factors such as proximity of urban activities, shore and coastal uses, wind and ocean currents. These enable the presence of accumulation areas in oceanic convergence zones and on the seafl , notably in coastal canyons. Temporal trends are not clear with evidences for increases, decreases or without changes, depending on locations and environmental conditions. In terms of distribution and quantities, proper global estimations based on standardized approaches are still needed before considering effi management and reduction measures.


Anthropogenic litter on the sea surface, beaches and seafloor has significantly increased over recent decades. Initially described in the marine environment in the 1960s, marine litter is nowadays commonly observed across all oceans (Ryan 2015). Together with its breakdown products, meso-particles (5–2.5 cm) and micro-particles (<5 mm), they have become more numerous and floating litter items can be transported over long distances by prevailing winds and currents (Barnes et al. 2009).

Humans generate considerable amounts of waste and global quantities are continuously increasing, although waste production varies between countries. Plastic, the main component of litter, has become ubiquitous and forms sometimes up to 95 % of the waste that accumulates on shorelines, the sea surface and the seafloor. Plastic bags, fishing equipment, food and beverage containers are the most common items and constitute more than 80 % of litter stranded on beaches (Topçu et al. 2013; Thiel et al. 2013). A large part of these materials decomposes only slowly or not at all. This phenomenon can also be observed on the seafloor where 90 % of litter caught in benthic trawls is plastic (Galil et al. 1995; Galgani et al. 1995, 2000; Ramirez-Llodra et al. 2013).

Even with standardized monitoring approaches, the abundance and distribution of anthropogenic litter show considerable spatial variability. Strandline surveys and cleanings as well as regular surveys at sea are now starting to be organized in many countries in order to generate information about temporal and spatial distribution of marine litter (Hidalgo-Ruz and Thiel 2015). Accumulation rates vary widely and are influenced by many factors such as the presence of large cities, shore use, hydrodynamics and maritime activities. As a general pattern, accumulation rates appear to be lower in the southern than in the northern hemisphere. Enclosed seas such as the Mediterranean or Black Sea may harbor some of the highest densities of marine litter on the seafloor, reaching more than 100,000 items km−2 (Galgani et al. 2000). In surface waters, the problem of plastic fragments has increased in the last few decades. From the first reports in 1972 (Wong et al. 1974), the quantities of microparticles in European seas have grown in comparison to data from 2000 (Thompson et al. 2004). Recent data suggest that quantities of microparticles appear to have stabilized in the North Atlantic Ocean over the last decade (Law et al. 2010). Little is known about trends in accumulation of debris in the deep sea. Debris densities on the deep seafloor decreased in some areas, such as in the Bay of Tokyo from 1996 to 2003 and in the Gulf of Lion between 1994 and 2009 (Kuriyama et al. 2003; Galgani et al. 2011a, b). By contrast, in some areas around Greece, the abundance of debris in deep waters has substantially increased over a period of eight years (Stefatos et al. 1999; Koutsodendris et al. 2008) and on the deep Arctic seafloor of the HAUSGARTEN observatory over aperiod of ten years (Bergmann and Klages 2012). Interpretation of temporal trends is complicated by seasonal changes in the flow rate of rivers, currents, wave action, winds etc. Decreasing trends of macroplastics (>2.5 cm) on beaches of remote islands suggest that regulations to reduce dumping at sea have been successful to some extent (Eriksson et al. 2013). However, both the demand and the production of plastics reached 299 million tons in 2013 and are continuing to increase (PlasticsEurope 2015).

< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >