Analysis of the composition of marine litter is important as it provides vital information on individual litter items, which, in most cases, can be traced back to their sources. Sources of litter can be characterised in several ways (see also Browne 2015). One common method is to classify marine litter sources as either landbased or ocean-based, depending on where the litter entered the sea. Some items can be attributed with a high level of confidence to certain sources such as fishing gear, sewage-related debris and tourist litter. So-called use-categories provide valuable information for developing reduction measures (Galgani et al. 2011a).

Land-based sources include mainly recreational use of the coast, general public litter, industry, harbors and unprotected landfills and dumps located near the coast, but also sewage overflows, introduction by accidental loss and extreme events. Marine litter can be transported to the sea by rivers (Rech et al. 2014; Sadri and Thompson 2014) and other industrial discharges and run-offs or can even be blown into the marine environment by winds. Ocean-based sources of marine litter include commercial shipping, ferries and liners, both commercial and recreational fishing vessels, military and research fleets, pleasure boats and offshore installations such as platforms, rigs and aquaculture sites. Factors such as ocean current patterns, climate and tides, the proximity to urban, industrial and recreational areas, shipping lanes and fishing grounds also influence the types and amount of litter that are found in the open ocean or along beaches.

Assessments of the composition of litter in different marine regions show that “plastics”, which include all petroleum-based synthetic materials, make up the largest proportion of overall litter pollution (e.g. Pham et al. 2014). Packaging, fishing nets and pieces thereof, as well as small pieces of unidentifiable plastic or polystyrene account for the majority of the litter items recorded in this category (Galgani et al. 2013). Some of this can take hundreds of years to break down or may never truly degrade (Barnes et al. 2009).

Whether or not visual observations from ships and airplanes, observations using underwater vehicles, manned or not, acoustics and finally trawling will provide the necessary detail to characterise litter and eventually define sources is not always clear. Previous notions that at a global scale most of the marine litter is from land-based sources rather than from ships, were confirmed (Galgani et al. 2011b). Marine litter found on beaches consists primarily of plastics (bottles, bags, caps/lids, etc.), aluminium (cans, pull tabs) and glass (bottles) and mainly originates from shoreline recreational activities but is also transported by the sea by currents. In some cases, specific activities account for local litter densities well above the global average (Pham et al. 2014). For example, marine litter densities on beaches can be increased by up to 40 % in summer because of high tourist numbers (Galgani et al. 2013). In some tourist areas, more than 75 % of the annual waste is generated in summer, when tourists produce on average 10–15 % more waste than the inhabitants; although not all of this waste enters the marine environment (Galgani et al. 2011b).

In some areas such as the North Sea or the Baltic Sea, the large diversity of items and the composition of the litter recorded indicate that shipping, fisheries and offshore installations are the main sources of litter found on beaches (Fleet et al. 2009). In some cases, litter can clearly be attributed to shipping, sometimes accounting for up to 95 % of all litter items in a given region, a large proportion of which originates from fishing activities often coming in the form of derelict nets (Van Franeker et al. 2011). In the North Sea, this percentage has been temporally stable (Galgani et al. 2011a) but litter may be supplemented by coastal recreational activities and riverine input (Lechner et al. 2014; Morritt et al. 2014). Studies along the US west coast, specifically off the coast of the southern California Bight (Moore and Allen 2000; Watters et al. 2010; Keller et al. 2010; Schlining et al. 2013) have shown that ocean-based sources are the major contributors to marine debris in the eastern North Pacific with, for example, fishing gear being the most abundant debris off Oregon (June 1990). Investigations in coastal waters and beaches around the northern South China Sea in 2009 and 2010 indicated that plastics (45 %) and Styrofoam (23 %) accounted for more than 90 % of floating debris and 95 % of beached debris. The sources were primarily land-based and mostly attributed to coastal recreational activities (Lee et al. 2013). In the Mediterranean, reports from Greece classify land-based (69 % of the litter) and vessel-based (26 %) waste as the two predominant sources of litter (Koutsodendris et al. 2008).

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