Aquatic Litter and Debris—Solutions

Like other water pollution problems, we can solve our aquatic litter problem in one of two ways: we can cleanup the litter or we can prevent it from ever reaching the water. This page explores both methods, and also discusses some laws and regulations pertaining to the proper disposal of solid waste.

1. Cleanups
One solution to the aquatic debris problem is cleaning up the trash using paid employees and volunteers.

Several groups organize volunteer cleanups in Virginia, and are happy to include school groups, businesses, civic organizations and families in their efforts to make our streams and beaches cleaner. The International Coastal Cleanup in Virginia, an annual statewide cleanup of all water bodies in Virginia, is organized by Clean Virginia Waterways, located at Longwood University in Farmville. In addition to this statewide event (held every fall), there are several regional cleanup events held every spring including the James River Regional Cleanup (organized by the James River Advisory Council), Clean the Bay Day (organized by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation), and the Potomac River Cleanup (organized by the Alice Ferguson Foundation). Hundreds of local cleanups are also organized every year through the "Adopt-a-Stream" program run by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, where groups of interested citizens adopt a stream in their area. Virginia also has dozens of "Friends of…" groups, including Friends of the Rappahannock, Friends of the Shenandoah River, and Friends of the Appomattox River. These groups offer a variety of stewardship opportunities for citizens and students.

Prevention vs. Cleaning up

Cleaning up pollution after it has entered the water is important, but it can be only a temporary solution if the sources of pollution are not also addressed. As mentioned above, the costs associated with cleanups can also be high. While both pollution cleanup and pollution prevention are needed, when it comes to the very preventable problem of aquatic debris, emphasizing prevention will yield greater results.

2. Pollution Prevention
There are two main approaches to preventing litter and trash from entering our waterways.
1. Proper Disposal. Educate people on the need to dispose of their trash properly, and make it easy for them to do so.
2. Waste Reduction. Examine how much waste we produce, and find ways to reduce it.

Proper Disposal
What a difference proper disposal of waste can make! As seen above, the vast majority of the aquatic litter is from items we can all easily carry until we find a trash can. Fast food wrappers, bottles, cans, and cigarette butts are more than 80% of the litter we find in our waterways.

Waste Reduction
In the United States, we have 4.6% of the world's population, but we produce about 33% of the world's solid waste. Each of us can make incredible strides in reducing the amount of waste we are responsible for creating by employing the three "Rs"—Recycle, Reuse, Reduce. For every item we recycle or reuse, there will be one less piece of trash that can become a part of the aquatic debris cycle.

What you can do to reduce the amount of trash you dispose of:
• Buying reusable items rather than disposable ones. This can include reusable lunchboxes, plates, cups, eating utensils, and food containers instead of disposable items.
• Reusing items several times before throwing them away.
• Recycling plastics, glass, metals, and paper, and buying recycled goods too.
• Choosing items that have the least packaging.
• Not buying helium-filled balloons, and discouraging the release of balloons. Ask communities to celebrate in a way that doesn't add these deadly balloons to our aquatic environment. To learn more about balloon litter, click here.
• Composting kitchen and yard waste.
• Using rechargeable batteries and recycling them when their useful life is over.
• Using a canvas or string bag to carry groceries and other items.
• Using cloth napkins, dishtowels, and handkerchiefs instead of paper ones.

3. Changing Behaviors (education, laws and regulations)
Growing public awareness and concern for controlling debris in our oceans and waterways has led to international, national, and statewide laws that prohibit littering and the dumping of trash in waterways. In the United States and in Virginia, there are several laws regulating the use, disposal, and effects of solid waste on aquatic environments.

In 1988, the U.S. signed onto the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (called MARPOL for short), joining 64 other countries to make dumping plastic into the oceans illegal. After signing MARPOL, the U.S. passed the Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act. This act makes it against the law to dump plastics at sea and in all U.S. navigable waters. Laws like this have reduced the amount of trash on our beaches and in our ocean. Even so, it is estimated that there are more than 46,000 pieces of plastic debris floating on every square mile of ocean today.

To read Virginia's litter laws, go to the Virginia General Assembly's web site ( and select "Code of Virginia." Type "litter" in the search box, and then click on "Submit." You will see a list of statutes and regulations addressing this topic.


Our Work
Marine Debris (also known as aquatic debris or litter)

Aquatic litter and debris are any manufactured or processed solid waste that enters the aquatic environment from any source. In short, it is our misplaced waste and trash. It is a highly pervasive and visible form of pollution that has harmful impacts on wildlife and human health.

Aquatic ecosystems—streams, rivers, wetlands, and estuaries—are under considerable pressure from human activities, including incorrect disposal of trash. While the world's oceans are vast, they do not have an infinite ability to safely absorb our wastes. Preserving and restoring the quality of freshwater and marine environments requires that we understand how much trash we create, what we do with that trash, and how we can prevent it from entering our waterways.

Impacts on Aquatic Habitat
Habitat destruction or harm is caused when submerged debris (for example, a piece of plastic sheeting) covers seagrass beds, or smothers bottom-dwelling species. Some debris can also cause physical damage.

Impacts on Water Quality
Debris can also affect the water quality by adding chemicals to the water. Construction waste illegally dumped in a stream can include buckets that once held paints, solvents, and other chemicals. Cigarette butts and some other littered items contain toxic chemicals that leach into the water.


Learn more about marine debris and how we can prevent it!

Litter Prevention

Clean Virginia Waterways, together with BoatU.S. Foundation, created this sign that reminds boaters and anglers to "Bring it Back." The signs are laminated for outdoor use. They measure 8" x 8" and have English on one side, and Spanish on the other.

If you know of a marina or boat dock in Virginia that could use a sign, please contact CVW at or call 434-395-2602.

Free while supplies last.

About Litter and Debris:

Litter Prevention Page

Cigarette Butt Litter—A Special Problem

Article about Aquatic Litter and Debris (written by CVW for school teachers and others)

Impacts of aquatic debris

Litter and Debris in our Waterways - Impacts, Sources and Solutions Page

What Volunteers Found in Virginia's Waterways--Data from past International Coastal Cleanups

How Data from the ICC are used

The International Coastal Cleanup in Virginia



Teacher Professional Development

Course for Middle School Teachers: Summer of 2013
SOLstice: Summer of Learning – Science Teachers Investigating the Chesapeake Environment. This unique and exciting Chesapeake Bay Academy will bring together university faculty, practicing middle-school teachers, and pre-service middleschool science teachers to work collaboratively as “teacher-researchers.” Taught by Longwood University faculty in conjunction with Clean Virginia Waterways, Longwood University's Hull Springs Farm and other partners.

Clean Virginia Waterways' other spring and summer workshops for teachers are now being planned. Please send us an email if you are interested in being notified!

Virginia's Water ResourcesA tool for Teachers curriculum packet
Virginia-specific! This book is full of information and activities for teachers to support interdisciplinary and problem-based teaching about watersheds, water quality, stewardship, and management issues. It supports the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement's goal to "provide a meaningful Bay or stream outdoor experience for every school student in the watershed before graduation from high school."

Virginia's Water Resources—A Tool for Teachers was written by Jeremy M. Lloyd, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Science Education, Longwood University, and Kathleen M. Register, Executive Director of Clean Virginia Waterways. It was developed through a grant from the Virginia Environmental Endowment. Click here for the Table of Contents and PDF files you can print.

World Water Monitoring DayVirginia-specific guide for educators
The World Water Monitoring Day is an international education and outreach program that builds public awareness and involvement in protecting water resources around the world by engaging citizens to conduct basic monitoring of their local water bodies. Participants sample local water bodies for a core set of water quality parameters including temperature, acidity (pH), clarity (turbidity) and dissolved oxygen (DO). Results are shared with participating communities around the globe through the WWMD website:

Clean Virginia Waterways worked with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and the Virginia Water Monitoring Council to create this Virginia-specific guide for educators thanks to a grant from Altria. This on-line guide will help you plan a safe and educational World Water Monitoring Day event on your school grounds, or in a nearby park.

More resources for educators, including how to handle animals in your classroom.






























Rain Barrels & Harvesting Rain Water

Clean Virginia Waterways is a leader in water conservation through the use of rain barrels. More than 160 nonprofit organizations and local governments have been trained by CVW to put on Rain Barrel Workshops in their communities. Tens of thousands rain barrels are deployed across Virginia thanks to CVW and its partners.

Conserve water, reduce runoff & save a bit of money
Drought or no drought, we should all conserve water. Virginia's groundwater and fresh water supplies are limited. As more people are using groundwater, we need to use it responsibly. Rainwater is usually free of dissolved minerals and great for your indoor plants, garden and lawn, washing your car, and your birdbaths.

If your roof's area is 1,200 square feet (30 x 40 feet), then 1 inch of rain equals more than 700 gallons! Harvest this rainwater which otherwise would be lost to runoff. To harvest even more rainwater, connect several barrels in a series and have 100s of gallons of water capacity.

Runoff can cause erosion, plus carry fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals into streams where they are very damaging. Rain barrels help you manage peak storm runoff. If you get your water from the town, why pay to water your gardens when you can collect hundreds of gallons at no cost? Also, if you depend on electricity to run your well pump, water in rain barrels is handy in power outages.

Rain Barrel Workshops
Every spring, CVW works with partners across the state in offering rain barrel workshops. Workshops cover water conservation, how to prevent polluted runoff, the benefits of rain barrels, how to install and maintain a rain barrel, and how to prevent mosquitoes from breeding. Send an email to to learn about upcoming workshops. Please put "Rain Barrel Workshop" in the subject line.


Would your organization or park like to co-sponsor a Rain Barrel Workshop with CVW? Call CVW at 434-395-2602 to learn more about workshops and supplies for workshops (barrels, faucet kits, etc.).

How to make a rain barrel from a food-grade barrel: Directions here

Virginia Waterways Cleanup
Part of the International Coastal Cleanup
September 1 through October 31 annually

Sites for the 2014 Virginia Waterways Cleanups (September and October) will soon be registering volunteers! It is as easy as 1, 2, 3!

1. Find a cleanup site near you. (2014 cleanup sites will be posted later this summer)

2. Contact the Site Captain to register and get details on where to meet.

3. Show up, cleanup & fill out a data card! Bring some friends & family members too! Your actions = cleaner water!

This annual cleanup of trash and litter in our rivers and on our beaches is part of the International Coastal Cleanup and is the largest event held by Clean Virginia Waterways.

Thousands of volunteers gather along the shorelines of Virginia’s rivers, lakes, bays, and beaches in September and October to cleanup litter and debris, and recycle found items.  They also complete Data Cards, supplied by Ocean Conservancy, to collect valuable information about the amounts and types of litter and debris. Please participate in this statewide and international effort dedicated to cleaning the world’s waterways.

If you would like to be a LEADER of a cleanup, please signup to be a Site Captain or call Clean Virginia Waterways at 434-395-2602, or send an email to

Cigarette butts as litter

Clean Virginia Waterways was a pioneer in researching cigarette butt litter -- the most common type of litter in Virginia, in the U.S.A. and in the world according to data collected by International Coastal Cleanup Volunteers.

Learn all about cigarette butt litter, and the simple steps that we can take to reduce this form of litter.


Balloons as litter: a problem we can solve

Balloons become litter when released into the air. Guess you can say there is a "down side" to balloons.

Help us collect information about balloons as litter!

Citizen scientists are being asked to help collect data about balloons found in Virginia between April 22, 2012 and April 22, 2014. This "Earth Day to Earth Day" study is co-sponsored by Clean Virginia Waterways and the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center. Learn More about this ground-breaking study, or click here if you are ready to enter data about balloons you have found.

What goes up must come down! Balloons return to the land and sea where they can be mistaken for prey and eaten by animals. Balloons are hazards when they enter the aquatic environment because they can look a great deal like jellyfish—a major source of food for many animals. Sea turtles, dolphins, whales, fish, and seabirds have been reported with balloons in their stomachs. In 1985, an infant sperm whale was found dead of starvation as a result of ingestion of an inflated Mylar balloon which had lodged in its intestines. Ribbons and strings tied to balloons can lead to entanglement.

Instead of balloon releases...

We can celebrate with balloons! Just don't let them go!

Learn more about the impacts of balloon litter...and the solutions!