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Plastic pollution in the sea

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Plastic pollution in the sea has pushed its way to the forefront of public opinion over the last few months. New research drives this publicity, with revelations that up to 93% of bottled water may contain microplastics1. This coupled with Blue Planet II’s stark imagery of plastic build up in the most remote parts of our planet means that "out of sight, out of mind" is no longer an option for the UK, a notion that is already reflected in recent government policy.

The threat posed by plastic pollution to marine biodiversity is striking. Approximately 700 species of marine organism are known to have been affected by some form of marine debris in the oceans2. Often, this results in significant harm or death. Ingestion is also a major threat to marine life, with species ranging from plankton to birds known to ingest plastic litter2. But plastic in the oceans is not only a threat to biodiversity, it affects the UK’s economy too. Three examples highlight the economic cost of plastic pollution:

  1. the approximate cost of the marine litter problem in Scotland is £16.8 million per year, though potentially much more3
  2. marine litter costs the ports and harbour industry approximately £2.1 million per year4
  3. local authorities spend approximately £15 million each year on the removal of beach litter5

There is an increasing public interest in reducing plastic waste, with awareness events such as National Maritime Week providing advice on how to use less plastic.  The UK has taken steps to work towards reducing plastic waste, examples include the 5p charge for plastic carrier bags which came into force in 2015, and the Prime Minister’s announcement of plans to end avoidable plastic waste by 2042. Scotland’s proposal to ban the manufacture and sale of cotton buds demonstrates another option for policymakers. However, plastic remains a large and complex problem. We need to do more research into the pathways of plastic waste and biodegradable alternatives if we want to reduce the amount of plastic in oceans.

You can read more about plastic pollution and its effect on the ocean in our Future of the Sea report and our plastic pollution evidence review.


  1. Mason S, Welch B, Neratko J (2017). Synthetic polymer contamination in bottled water. [Online]. (Accessed 19th July 2018).
  2. Gall S, Thompson R (2015). The impact of debris on marine life. [Online]. (Accessed 19th July 2018).
  3. Scottish Government (2012). Marine Litter Issues, Impact and Actions. [Online]. (Accessed 19th July 2018).
  4. Mouat J, Lozano R, Bateson H (2010). Economic impacts of marine litter. [Online]. (Accessed 19th July 2018).
  5. Hastings E, Potts T (2013). Marine anthropogenic litter on British beaches: a 10-year nationwide assessment using citizen science data. [Online]. (Accessed 19th July 2018).

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