Spotlight on marine litter

The current state of research and of research gaps concerning litter in our oceans is presented in the new open access book Marine Anthropogenic Litter, published by Springer. Estimates of the amount of litter in the world's oceans, its distribution, effects on humans and biota, and prevention strategies are just some of the topics addressed in the book. The editors, Melanie Bergmann and Lars Gutow from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) and Michael Klages from the University of Gothenburg's Sven Lovén Centre for Marine Sciences, have brought together experts from around the globe to contribute to the book.

"There is already quite a substantial body of research on marine litter. Following the 'discovery' of the great garbage patches and microplastics, the subject steadily gained momentum - which made it even more obvious to us how little we currently know about the location and distribution of litter in the oceans," explains AWI biologist Melanie Bergmann. "Estimates indicate that in 2010 alone, between 4.8 and 12.7 million tons of litter ended up in the oceans."

Some of the more obvious consequences of marine litter are well known, such as dead seabirds with intestines full of obstructing plastics, or strangulated marine mammals and turtles. However, when it comes to other effects, for example, impacts on organisms inhabiting the seafloor or how microplastics behave in food webs, researchers still rely primarily on sound assumptions and plausible chains of evidence. The potential impacts on human health also remain largely unknown, despite the fact that this is an environmental problem of global concern.

The editors were surprised to learn just how many regulatory initiatives exist around the world that deal with marine litter. Unfortunately, they do not seem to have had an effect on the global scale: the rise in the amount of litter in the oceans shows no signs of slowing down.

"That does not come as a surprise, because industrial plastic production is also increasing, having grown by roughly four percent between 2012 and 2013 to a total of 299 million tons," reports Melanie Bergmann.

However, the book also highlights positive examples of litter prevention. Rwanda and Somalia have strictly prohibited plastic bags. The introduction of a levy on plastic bags in Wales and Ireland has significantly cut the number of bags in circulation. This is reflected in lower numbers of shopping bags found on Irish beaches.

"Plastics should be regarded as a valuable resource rather than being carelessly used in single-use packaging, just because this seems to be the cheapest solution. If the costs of their environmental impacts, clean-up operations and shipping hazards were included in the price, these products would become a lot more expensive, resulting in a more responsible attitude concerning their usage," summarise the researchers.

M. Bergmann, L. Gutow, M. Klages (Eds.)
Marine Anthropogenic Litter
2015, XVIII, 447 p. 68 illus., 35 illus. in color.
Hardcover €49,99 | £44.99 | $59.99
ISBN 978-3-319-16509-7 (Print)
ISBN 978-3-319-16510-3 (Online Open Access)