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seal caught in plastic ocean pollution

The Basics

We're treating the oceans like a trash bin: around 80 percent of marine litter originates on land, and most of that is plastic. Plastic that pollutes our oceans and waterways has severe impacts on our environment and our economy. Seabirds, whales, sea turtles and other marine life are eating marine plastic pollution and dying from choking, intestinal blockage and starvation. Scientists are investigating the long-term impacts of toxic pollutants absorbed, transported, and consumed by fish and other marine life, including the potential effects on human health.

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What it Means to You

Plastic pollution affects every waterway, sea and ocean in the world. When we damage our water systems, we're putting our own well-being at risk. This pollution also has huge costs for taxpayers and local governments that must clean this trash off of beaches and streets to protect public health, prevent flooding from trash-blocked storm drains, and avoid lost tourism revenue from filthy beaches. NRDC analyzed a survey of 95 California communities and found their total reported annual costs for preventing litter from becoming pollution is $428 million per year. See NRDC's Waste in Our Waterways: Unveiling the Hidden Costs to Californians of Litter Cleanup.


The most effective way to stop plastic pollution in our oceans is to make sure it never reaches the water in the first place. We all need to do our fair share to stop plastic pollution: individuals need to recycle and never litter, but producers of single use plastic packaging need to do more too. We need producers to design packaging so that it is fully recyclable, and so there is less waste. We also need producers to help cover the costs of keeping their products out of the ocean.

NRDC is working on three key strategies to curb plastic water pollution in the U.S. and beyond:

1. Holding plastic producers accountable. Many states hold producers of materials like paint and carpet responsible for recovering and recycling their product after it is used. Producers of plastic packaging should be required to find innovative ways to design better packaging that can be more fully recovered for recycling or reuse, and they should help cover the costs required to keep plastic out of the environment.

NRDC is building a growing coalition of waste management, community, environmental, and business groups support measures that would stop plastic pollution at its source by creating incentives for industry to use less packaging for their products, make them recyclable, and ensure that recycling actually happens. Increasing recycling isn't just good for the environment; it's also a green jobs creator. Learn more in NRDC's report From Waste to Jobs: What Achieving 75 Percent Recycling Means for California.

plastic pollution ingested by fish

2. Leading international action. NRDC's oceans and waste experts are working directly with international leaders and organizations such as the UN Environment Program to help establish international guidelines for curbing plastic pollution. We're also bringing government agencies and organizations together at the international level to showcase solutions.

3. Reducing plastic pollution. NRDC helps control the amount of litter in our oceans by pushing for legislation that will reduce plastic pollution. We offer strategic guidance to partner organizations and support policies at the state and municipal level in California that help to address pollution from plastic bags and foam to-go containers.

What You Can Do

Marine plastic pollution shows us that we cannot really throw anything "away." Reducing, reusing, and recycling is the best way to stem the tide of plastics into our oceans. Here are some specific steps you can take to cut down on your use and protect our oceans.

1. Cut disposable plastics out of your routine. Simple alternatives include bringing your own bag to the store, choosing reusable items wherever possible, and purchasing plastic with recycled content.

shoreline littered with plastic pollution

2. Recycle. When you need to use plastic, be sure that you recycle it after you've reused it. Each piece of plastic recycled is one less piece of waste that could end up in our oceans.

3. Take Responsibility. Whether you represent yourself, a business, or a government, know how much you are contributing to the problem of plastic pollution.

  • Conduct a waste audit and share the information.
  • Set specific goals to reduce or eliminate your plastic waste generation.

4. Clean up your beach. Many organizations host clean-up days where you can volunteer to pick up trash at your local beach. A few hours of your time can make a big difference.

5. Support NRDC's work. Because marine debris primarily originates on land, NRDC's ongoing work on waste prevention and recycling plays a critical role in resolving this issue. With your support, NRDC can continue urgent work to reduce plastic waste from reaching our oceans. Donate now »

last revised 3/8/2014

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