History of Marine Litter Research


Marine litter research has exploded in the last 10 years, reaching international importance and getting the attention of the UNEP in 2015. This new insurgence of interest started with the rediscovery and documentation of the North Pacific Garbage patch by Captain C. Moore in 2001, but the science and research starts much earlier than that.

The first appearance of marine litter in scientific literature was in 1969, and reported the ingestion of plastic by Laysan Albatross (Kenyon & Kridler). Increased number of reports of ingestion and entanglement continued into the mid 70’s.

Two ground breaking papers in 1972 reported the presence of floating plastic particles in all samples taken from the Sargasso Sea (Carpenter & Smith, 1972), and floating polystyrene with bacterial communities and high PCB concentrations (Carpenter et al, 1972). These two papers increased interest and concern. Reports of floating plastic, animal interactions, and trophic transfer increased. Studies popped up in different regions including the North Atlantic and Caribbean (Colton et al, 1974).

Beach litter also come under scrutiny, and research started to show that beach litter was accumulating from the ocean, and was not simply left by beach users (Scott, 1972), and the first evidence of marine litter on the seafloor emerged from Swedish trawl fishery (Holmstrom, 1975). Most research focused on the impacts on seabirds, though there were a few reports detailing interaction between turtles and litter of the coast of South Africa.

plastica-nei-mari-greenpeace-2The first Marine Debris Conferences held in 1984 and 1989 collated important papers and information on the issue. In 1994, the conference theme shifted towards global solutions, and the latest conference held in 2012 created The Honolulu Strategy: A Global Framework for Prevention and Management of Marine Debris.

The earliest mitigation focused on shipping/fishing and plastic industry. Measuring the success of such efforts is challenging, and is based on beach quantities and animal interaction rates, but it seems that the early mitigation schemes (including the London Protocol, MARPOL V) were at least somewhat successful.

It was recognized early on that plastics broke down in the environment. Initial assessments believed that this breakdown eventually lead to the complete degradation of plastic into dust. In the early 2000’s microscopic plastics were reported as a ubiquitous form or marine pollution, stimulating an entirely new field of study. These microplastics are an important source of chemical pollution, have been shown to be consumed and bioaccumulate, though human health impacts have not yet been well assessed.



Ryan, Peter G. A Brief History of Marine Litter Research. Marine Anthropogenic Litter. Ed. M, Bergmann, L. Gutow, M. Klages. Springer Open (2015): 1-25

Get free access to the chapter here


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