The marine litter problem is global in scale and intergenerational in impact. Marine debris, or marine litter, includes any anthropogenic, manufactured, or processed solid material (regardless of size) discarded, disposed of, or abandoned that ends up in the marine environment. It includes, but is not limited to, plastics, metals, glass, concrete and other construction materials, paper and cardboard, polystyrene, rubber, rope, textiles, timber and hazardous materials, such as munitions, asbestos and medical waste. In some instances, marine debris may also be a vessel for dangerous pollutants that are eventually released into the marine environment. Marine litter may result from activities on land or at sea. Marine litter is a complex cultural and multi-sectoral problem that exacts tremendous ecological, economic, and social costs around the globe.
A good part of the marine debris from land-based sources results from unsustainable production, consumption, and poor waste management. Increased development, urbanization, and consumerism lead to increases in the use of disposable and non-degradable products and packaging, which results in increased generation of solid waste. Poor management or mishandling of waste materials creates the foundation for land-based sources of marine debris. Both legal and illegal waste handling practices contribute to marine debris. These include the inadvertent release of trash from inadequately covered waste containers and waste transport vehicles; poorly managed waste dumps and landfills; manufacturing sites, processors, and transporters; recreational beach and roadside littering; sewage treatment and combined sewer overflows; and the illegal dumping of domestic and industrial garbage into riverine, coastal and marine waters.
Marine debris is therefore part of a broader problem of solid waste management, which affects all coastal and upland communities including inland waterways and is closely linked to the protection and conservation of the marine and coastal environment and sustainable development. A lack of capacity and funding to effectively manage solid wastes is common, particularly in developing countries, and contributes to the problem of marine debris.
The activities to be carried out by the focal area on marine litter aim to reduce the amount of land-based litter and solid waste introduced into the marine environment.
The focal area on marine litter is led by UNEP's Division of Environmental Policy Implementation (DEPI).