Sources of Marine Debris

Did you know that the Great Lakes are the biggest freshwater source in the world? Lake Erie is the most productive for fishing of all the Great Lakes. Your support helps make our streams clean, clear and healthy so they can support this complex ecosystem. By donating to PCS, you help us reach our goals of restoring rivers that lead to Lake Erie beaches that promote fishable and swimmable conditions for generations.

Support PCS - Donate Now!

Sources of Marine Debris

Marine Debris comes in many shapes, sizes, and forms. Those of you who have joined us for a Clean Your Streams Day or Get the Lead Out know this to be true. Everything from styrofaom coffee cups, aluminum cans, and plastic grocery bags to shopping carts, tires, and sunken boats -- it is all considered marine debris. Recently, marine debris buzz has surrounded what is referred to as microplastics. To learn more about microplastics, continue reading on this page. The most frequently found type of marine debris is in the form of plastic. We will focus our attention on plastic, but understand that anything that doesn't belong in a marine environment is considered debris. 

Top 10 Items Collected During the 2018 ICC (Photo: Ocean Conservancy)
 2018 ICC top 10 items collected

MarineDebris2Small Plastics (Photo: NOAA) 

MarineDebris3Plastic Bottles (Photo: NOAA)

MarineDebris5Microbeads (Photo: National Geographic)

Stone Lab scientist with cigarette butt signCigarette butts are one of the top marine debris items collected during Clean Your Streams Day. Similarly, cigarette butts were the item most frequently found during last year's International Coastal Cleanup, with over 2 million collected. Whether you smoke cigarettes or not, this should concern you. Cigarettes are detrimental to environmental health for the same reasons they are to human health. Contrary to popular belief, cigarettes are not biodegradable! 95% of cigarette filters are made of cellulose acetate, a plastic that is slow to degrade and persists in the environment for a long time. Unfortunately, filters are often consumed by wildlife as they mistake the filters as food.  Cigarette chemicals can also leach into water and contaminate it. One cigarette butt leaching chemicals into 2 gallons of water is enough to contaminate it and negitively impact marine species. Please properly dispose of cigarette butts in trash cans, ash trays, or specific bins for butts! Wildlife, people, and waterways will appreciate it! 

Through our annual cleanup programs, our volunteers collect more plastic than any other type of trash from the rivers. The majority of this plastic is considered one-time use plastic products like straws, food wrappers, or water/pop bottles. And unfortunately, plastic only accumulates -- it never really leaves the environment. Through a process known as photolysis, plastic slowly breaks down into small beads, called microplastics. Through photolysis, the sun’s energy penetrates and weakens the plastic, until it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. This can take hundreds of years! And even when plastic becomes so small we can no longer see it with a naked eye, the small beads still maintain the chemical structure of their parent material. Microplastics are small but mighty -- they accumulate and create problems for marine wildlife, even right here in the Great Lakes region. 

MarineDebris4Photo: NOAAMicroplastics come from many different sources. As mentioned before, plastic bottles, bags, and other items break down and evenutally become microbeads. But where else do they come from? Look no further than your bathroom cabinet and shower. Microplastics are used in some beauty and clensing products like face wash, toothpaste, and hand soaps. Look closely at your face wash when you put it in your hand -- do you see small blue or white beads? Those are more often than not, microplastics that once washed down your drain, enter the waste water system. Once there, the plastic beads are so small that they are not filtered out of the treated water. Microplastics, like other plastics, are not biodegradable and are therefore near impossible to remove. To learn more about personal products that contain microbeads, check out the Beat the Microbead campaign. 

At any size, plastic poses a threat to the health of humans and wildlife. At the smallest chemical level, PCB’s, or chemicals used historically in paint, lubricants, fire retardants, and coolants, accumulate on plastics. PCB’s were banned in the United States in 1979. Unfortunately like plastics, PCB’s are chemically stable and do not easily degrade. Research has shown that PCB's have negative impacts on the health of humans and wildlife. Wildlife are also affected by similar health-related issues from the accumulation of PCB’s. Top predators such as birds and mammals are especially susceptible to PCB’s because of bioaccumulation, the process of passing PCB’s between organisms through food chains. Chemicals are not the only thing passed through food chains. The pieces of plastic themselves are often ingested by fish and birds. When this happens, plastic can accumulate in their stomachs, causing significant problems, possibly death. Entanglement in plastic debris is another major cause of wildlife mortality from marine debris. Fishing nets, fishing line, synthetic ropes, and plastic packaging all act as traps for unwary aquatic life.


Partners for Clean Streams Inc. is striving for abundant open space and a high quality natural environment; adequate floodwater storage capacities and flourishing wildlife; stakeholders who take local ownership in their resources; and rivers, streams and lakes that are clean, clear and safe