Marine litter issues, impacts and action-contributing to a marine litter strategy for Scotland

Published on 2 February 2012 in Sustainability and Communities , Climate, water and energy , Ecosystems and biodiversity


Increasingly, policy makers and the public are experiencing the problem of litter in our seas and on our beaches. Marine litter has a substantial impact on Scotland’s society, economy and marine environment - in 2010, a total of 53,162 items of litter were collected on a sample of Scottish beaches (along a length of only 22.3 km.)

The term marine litter covers manufactured or processed solid material disposed of or abandoned in the marine and coastal environment from land- and sea-based activities. The majority consists of plastics, and is highly persistent in the marine environment, with the lifetime of plastics estimated between 100-1000 years.

Image showing the origin of Beach litter - Marine Conservation Society (MCS) (2010)At the global scale, studies estimate that the greatest proportion (up to 80%) is from land-based sources, with similar proportions in Scotland. The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) (2010) revealed that the greatest proportions of litter originate from the public and non-sourced sectors (figure 1). In the MCS survey, an average of over 2380 items per km were found in Scotland, higher than the UK average of 1969 items/km. Plastic is dominant, accounting for 63.3% of marine litter at the UK level; an increase of 25% since 2009.

Key Points

The impacts of marine litter extend to environmental, social and economic spheres but currently our understanding of effects is limited, particularly the ecosystem effects and socio-economic impacts. It is clear, however, that marine litter can impact on a range of resources and ultimately threaten policies such as the Marine Strategy Framework Directive that focus on delivering a clean and healthy marine environment.

Using the concept of total economic value, the research highlighted an approximate economic cost of marine litter in Scotland at £16.8 million per annum. This figure, however, is a gross underestimate due to a lack of data –many sectors do not have data on impact, and there is no research on the economic impacts of litter on, for example, recreation or tourism.

The research found that a sufficient mix of regulatory tools exists across Scottish and UK jurisdictions to inform and implement a Scottish Marine Litter Strategy. When addressing marine litter, a strategy should take a systems approach addressing not only the removal, but also the sources from terrestrial and marine sectors and seek progress against the root causes of the problem, primarily human behaviour.

Research Undertaken

This study aimed to contribute to developing a marine litter strategy for Scotland’s seas by reviewing: the extent of the issue; existing activities; impacts; and governance mechanisms. As part of the study, a workshop was held with participants from across differing sectors and regions of the UK to explore reduction and removal issues, governance, and approaches to reduce future inputs of litter by source.

The review identified a plethora of legislation and initiatives at local, regional and national scales, some of which are specific to marine litter, others towards general litter management and environmental stewardship. These display a number of strengths and work at different scales to engage the public. Their coordination within a Strategy and the identification of ways in which Scotland can better learn from and coordinate with the global movement in tackling marine litter is essential.

As part of the proposed strategy development within this work, the following vision was developed:

‘By 2020 marine litter in Scotland is significantly reduced and does not pose a risk to the environment or communities. This is achieved within a Scotland where people and businesses act responsibility and reuse, recycle, and recover waste resources’.

Policy Implications

Marine litter is a key policy problem in Scotland that undermines the vision for ‘clean, healthy, safe, productive, biologically diverse marine and coastal environments, managed to meet the long term needs of nature and people’.   An important point to note is that a legal requirement to address marine litter exists under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive. This research pulls together a broad suite of information on the topic, places it within the Scottish context and provides concrete policy options towards becoming a society that embraces the concept of ‘waste as resource’. Several innovative policy examples from other countries and jurisdictions are explored that may offer help in designing solutions to the marine litter problem in Scotland.

Overall this work endorses, as a matter of priority, the development of a marine litter strategy for Scotland. This strategy should be innovative and forward looking, coordinating amongst the variety of sectors, users and instruments available – ‘joining the dots’ to tackle the considerable challenges in educating the public and creating a zero waste Scotland.

The research suggests 5 strategic directions to achieve this:

  1. improving public awareness of and behaviour changes around, marine litter;
  2. reducing terrestrial and maritime sources of litter entering the marine environment;
  3. contributing to a low carbon economy by treating ‘waste as a resource’ and seizing the economic and environmental opportunities;
  4. improving monitoring at a Scottish scale; and
  5. increasing engagement at the UK, EU, and international scales.

Addressing the marine litter problem requires not only policy change, but policy innovation. Key to the challenge is addressing the underlying human behaviour that creates litter problems using a variety of institutional, social, technological and regional innovations.  In order to effectively tackle the issue of marine litter, each of these need consideration and coordination across Scotland.


Emily Hastings

Tavis Potts


Sustainability and Communities , Climate, water and energy , Ecosystems and biodiversity

Comments or Questions

Log in or register to add comments