American Oceans

What is the Most Commonly Found Ocean Litter?

When it comes to ocean litter, one item stands out as the most commonly found debris in our seas.

litter and pollution lies and reached down mariana trench

Cigarette butts are the most frequent form of marine litter, negatively impacting the beauty of our beaches and the health of our marine ecosystems.

Despite many efforts to raise awareness and clean up our coasts, cigarette butts continue to rank among the most common types of marine debris found.

As we examine the issue of ocean litter more closely, it’s mind-boggling to learn that an estimated 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris are present in our oceans.

Out of this massive amount, 269,000 tons float on the surface, while approximately four billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer find their way into the deep sea.

These staggering numbers highlight the urgent need for us to address this significant environmental concern.

Most Common Types of Ocean Litter

Ocean litter is a significant concern for the environment and marine life.

stormwater runoff affect dirty water quality

As we investigate the most commonly found types of ocean litter, we will focus on three primary categories: Plastics, Microplastics, and Fishing Gear.


Plastics are the most common form of marine debris. They come from a variety of sources and enter the water in numerous ways. Some of the most frequently found plastic litter on beaches includes:

  • Plastic bottles
  • Plastic bottle caps
  • Plastic grocery bags
  • Plastic bags
  • Straws and stirrers
  • Plastic takeout containers
  • Beverage lids

Once in the water, plastic debris never fully biodegrades, which poses a long-lasting problem for the ocean and marine life.


Microplastics are small plastic pieces, typically less than 5mm in size, which can be particularly harmful to marine life.

These particles originate from various sources, such as the breakdown of larger plastic debris, the release of microbeads from personal care products, and synthetic fibers shed from clothing during washing.

There are an estimated four billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer littering the deep sea, making microplastics a significant contributor to marine pollution.

Fishing Gear

Discarded or lost fishing gear such as nets, lines, and traps is another common type of ocean litter.

This debris, also known as ghost gear, can entangle and harm marine animals or cause damage to the ocean floor and coral reefs.

Efforts to remove and recycle ghost gear are critical in addressing this aspect of marine pollution and protecting the ocean’s ecosystems.

Sources of Ocean Litter

Ocean litter is a major environmental concern that affects not only marine life but also the health of our planet.

Plastic waste covers shoreline

As we examine the sources of ocean litter, we can classify them into two main categories: land-based sources and sea-based sources.

Land-Based Sources

Land-based sources are the primary contributors to ocean litter. Various items discarded on land can find their way to the ocean through storm drains, rivers, and wind currents. Some of the most common land-based sources of ocean litter include:

  • Industrial and domestic waste: Inadequate waste management systems lead to the disposal of a substantial amount of litter in the environment. When such waste comes in contact with water bodies, such as rivers or storm drains, it is eventually carried to the ocean.
  • Agricultural runoff: Pesticides, fertilizers, and other pollutants used in agriculture can make their way into the ocean through freshwater runoff. This type of pollution can have adverse effects on the marine ecosystem, including the accumulation of harmful chemicals in organisms.
  • Lost or abandoned fishing gear: Fishing gear such as nets, lines, and traps can be accidentally lost or abandoned, posing a significant threat to marine life. This type of debris is known as ghost gear and can continue to catch and kill marine animals for years if not retrieved.

Sea-Based Sources

While land-based sources dominate the problem of ocean litter, sea-based sources also contribute to the pollution. Common sea-based sources include:

  • Shipping accidents: Disasters at sea, such as shipwrecks or cargo losses, can introduce significant quantities of litter into the ocean. These incidents can involve the release of shipping containers, fuel, and plastic materials that remain in the marine environment for extended periods.
  • Offshore oil and gas platforms: These platforms create a range of waste, including drilling muds, metal cuttings, and chemical additives. If not properly disposed of, this waste can enter the ocean, causing harm to marine ecosystems.
  • Marine litter from recreational activities: Beachgoers and other ocean recreation enthusiasts can leave behind trash, either accidentally or intentionally. Items like food wrappers, drink bottles, and cigarette butts are commonly found litter along shorelines and in the ocean.

Understanding the sources of ocean litter provides us with valuable information on how to tackle this issue.

Identifying and mitigating these sources will be critical in our efforts to preserve marine ecosystems and ensure a cleaner, healthier ocean environment for future generations.

Environmental Impacts

As we examine the most commonly found ocean litter, it is crucial to understand the environmental impacts this litter has on the oceans and the ecosystem.

lots of plastic pollution underwater

Marine Life

One of the most significant threats posed by ocean litter is its impact on marine life.

Animals can easily mistake plastic debris for food, leading to ingestion (National Ocean Service).

Additionally, marine creatures can become entangled in derelict fishing nets and other plastic debris, resulting in injury, illness, or death.

Habitat Destruction

Another vital concern is ocean litter’s contribution to habitat destruction.

As plastic debris and other waste accumulate in the oceans, they can degrade marine habitats, making them less suitable for essential species like fish and mollusks.

This habitat destruction might lead to the decline of fish populations, affecting communities that rely on fisheries for subsistence or employment (US EPA).


Pollution is yet another grave consequence of ocean litter. Plastic degradation products and other waste materials in the ocean can release harmful chemicals into the water or become embedded in sediments.

These contaminants can harm marine life and ultimately make their way into the human food chain, posing risks to humans as well.

Ocean Litter Cleanup Efforts

In this section, we will discuss the different efforts being made to clean up ocean litter, focusing on large scale cleanups and small scale initiatives.

ocean pollution art from pollution in the water

Large Scale Cleanups

Organizations like The Ocean Cleanup are working towards implementing large scale clean up strategies in the oceans.

This non-profit organization aims to clean up 90% of floating ocean plastic pollution by developing and scaling various technologies to remove plastic from the oceans.

These efforts require substantial funding, public awareness, and support to ensure the successful removal of litter from the ocean surfaces and depths.

While large scale cleanups have potential, some challenges need to be addressed; for example, the first collection system used by The Ocean Cleanup faced difficulties in retaining captured plastic.

Consequently, improvements and innovations are continuously being made to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of large scale cleanup operations.

Small Scale Initiatives

Local initiatives and community-driven projects also play a vital role in combating ocean litter.

Individuals and local groups can participate in beach and coastal cleanups, ensuring the responsible disposal of waste, and raising awareness about the impacts of marine debris on marine life and ecosystems.

Some small scale initiatives focus on reducing the influx of litter into the oceans by targeting common sources of pollution, such as cigarette butts and single-use plastics. Actions include:

  • Implementing waste reduction and recycling programs
  • Supporting local regulations that reduce or ban single-use plastics
  • Encouraging businesses and consumers to opt for reusable products

Through small scale initiatives, everyone can play a part in the collective action needed to reduce the amount of litter entering the oceans and clean up what is already present.

Add comment