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  • Human litter has worked its way into remote and inaccessible parts of the ocean where even humans haven’t managed to penetrate. A large-scale European seafloor survey of 588 seafloor transects, photos and video taken over 10 years at depths ranging from 35 metres to 4.5 kilometres, found the presence of bottles, plastic bags, fishing nets and other types of human litter at all sample locations, from the continental shelf of Europe to as far as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge some 2,000 km away from land.

    Litter present in all marine habitats

    “This survey has shown that human litter is present in all marine habitats, from beaches to the most remote and deepest parts of the oceans,” says one of the researchers, Professor Kerry Howell, in a press release from Plymouth University’s Marine Institute. “Most of the deep sea remains unexplored by humans and these are our first visits to many of these sites, but we were shocked to find that our rubbish has got there before us.”

    Rights: Christopher Pham et al. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0095839. University of the Azores, University of Plymouth.

    Human litter in marine habitats

    Human litter can be found in all marine habitats, from beaches to the most remote points in the oceans. Shown are some of the litter items from the survey, including a cargo net entangled in a cold-water coral colony at 950 m depth, and a Heineken beer can in a canyon also at 950 m.

    The study area included the northeast Atlantic Ocean, Arctic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, with sampling from continental shelves, continental slopes, submarine canyons, seamounts, banks, mounds, ocean ridges and deep basins. Most of the sampling was done using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), towed camera systems or trawls – as it is difficult for humans to explore first-hand at great depths.

    Nearly half of all litter is plastic

    The researchers reported in their published paper that the highest litter density occurs in submarine canyons, whilst the lowest density can be found on continental shelves and on ocean ridges. “Plastic was the most prevalent litter item found on the seafloor. Litter from fishing activities (derelict fishing lines and nets) was particularly common on seamounts, banks, mounds and ocean ridges.”

    Plastic was found in 98% of trawls and accounted for 41% of the litter. The published paper highlighted the mobility of plastics originating from coastal and land sources and being carried along continental shelves and slopes into deep water. Stormwater drains, sewers, rivers and wind play a role in moving litter to the coast and the sea.

    In Plymouth University’s press release, Dr Veerle Huvenne, Seafloor and Habitat Mapping Team Leader at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, explained that submarine canyons form the main connection between shallow coastal waters and the deep sea. “Canyons that are located close to major coastal towns and cities, such as the Lisbon Canyon offshore Portugal, or the Blanes Canyon offshore Barcelona, can funnel litter straight to water depths of 4,500 m or more.”

    Derelict fishing gear accounted for a further 34%. Glass (particularly bottles), metal, clinker (burnt coal residue), wood, paper/cardboard, fabric and pottery were also found.

    Marine biologist from the Spanish Research Council and co-author of the research Dr Eva Ramirez-Llodra says the clinker deposits on the seafloor were an interesting discovery. “This is the residue of burnt coal that had been dumped by steam ships from the late 18th century onwards. We have known that clinker occurs on the deep-sea bed for some time, but what we found was the accumulation of clinker is closely related with modern shipping routes, indicating that the main shipping corridors have not been altered in the last two centuries.”

    The effects of litter on sea creatures

    Millions of tonnes of litter wind up in the sea every year and have been documented to cause problems for marine mammals and fish when mistaken for food and eaten, for example, eaten plastic can cause choking or block digestive systems or give animals a sense of feeling full and they can starve to death. Nets and lines can entangle coral or entangle, injure and drown marine wildlife – a process known as ‘ghost fishing’. Ironically, toxins found in various litter, especially plastics, can enter the food chain and eventually come back to affect humans and other predators.

    Rights: Chris Jordan (via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters) / CC BY 2.0

    Impacts of plastic in the ocean

    This image shows the devastating impacts of plastic in the ocean. This albatross has died as a result of mistaking plastic for food. One action we can all take is making sure all waste is recycled appropriately. Any rubbish that ends up on the ground will make its way into our awa, waterways and then eventually out to the ocean. Even if you think you are nowhere near the ocean – in Aotearoa, all drains lead to the sea.

    Your actions can have an impact – good or bad. Which will you choose?

    The survey researchers say their results “highlight the extent of the problem and the need for action to prevent increasing accumulation of litter in marine environments”.

    The international study involved 15 organisations across Europe and was led by the University of the Azores, Portugal. Christopher Pham, from the university’s Departamento de Oceanografia e Pescas, was the lead author of the survey report. The study was a collaboration between the Mapping the Deep Project led by Plymouth University and the European Union-funded HERMIONE Project (Hotspot Ecosystem Research and Man’s Impact on European Seas), co-ordinated by the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton. Other project partners included the University of Southampton and the British Geological Survey.

    Results of the survey were published in the 30 April 2014 edition of the open-access journal PLoS ONE.

    Related content and activity ideas

    Plastic is a wicked problem. It’s incredibly useful, but it’s also a huge environmental issue. A helpful resource is Thinking about plastic – planning pathways which includes our interactive planning pathway – use this to begin a cross-curricular look at plastics.

    Find out about the Ocean Plastic Simulator – an interactive computer tool that shows where virtual plastic is likely to end up when it is dropped in the ocean.

    Read the Connected article Down the drain to see how students in Petone, Lower Hutt, took action to prevent rubbish from entering their local marine environment.

    A section of the image Human litter in marine habitats shows a beer can at a depth of 950 m. Start a discussion and provide context by using an online map to find a location 950 m from the classroom. Consider how the can arrived at this depth and, using information from Down the drain, how long the can might remain in this isolated location.

    Investigate why plastics make up almost half of the litter found in the sea with the Biodegradability experiment student activity.

    The What happens to our plastic bottles? activity is perfect for NZC levels 1 and 2. It uses the New Zealand Ready to Read books At the Beach and What Does the Tide Bring In? to introduce the PET plastic recycling process.

    Be part of a citizen science project Mizuiku Upstream Battle – helping to keep our environment clean, safe and thriving! Collect and audit litter at key upstream sites such as rivers, lakes and streams to help provide a better understanding of the root causes of ocean pollution.

    Use the lesson plans, interactive worksheets and other resources in the Keep New Zealand Beautiful (KNZB) 'Kiki Kiwi and friends Litter Less programme for students aged 5–11 years old.


    Pham, C.K., Ramirez-Llodra, E., Alt, C.H.S., Amaro, T., Bergmann. M. et al. (2014). Marine litter distribution and density in European seas, from the shelves to deep basins. PLoS ONE, 9(4): e95839. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0095839. Available from

    Useful link

    The Royal Society Te Apārangi resource Plastics in the Environment – Understanding plastic waste in Aotearoa has useful infographics and reports about the country’s plastics problems.

      Published 16 June 2014, Updated 12 December 2014 Referencing Hub articles
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