Aquatic Litter and Debris—Sources

According to the Ocean Conservancy, all the trash in our water shares a common origin: "…at a critical decision point, someone, somewhere, mishandled it, either thoughtlessly or deliberately."

Some debris originates from the sea and inland waterways. This includes debris from ships, boats, offshore drilling platforms, and offshore rigs.

The rest of the debris we find in our waterways comes from land-based sources, including people who litter, landfills, and storm drains. Another source of land-based debris is from "combined sewer overflows." In some cities with older infrastructures, such as Richmond and Lynchburg, Virginia, the water that enters a stormdrain during a rainstorm enters the same pipes that take wastewater from homes and businesses. This mixture of wastewater and storm water travels to the cities' wastewater treatment plants. During times of heavy rain, the volume of this water coming into the wastewater treatment plant can overwhelm the capacity of the plant, thereby causing an overflow. In combined sewer overflow situations, untreated wastewater (including raw sewage and untreated pollutants) directly enters the receiving stream or river. Therefore, items flushed down the toilet can end up in our waterways. Millions of dollars are being spent in Virginia and across the U.S. to eliminate this problem.

It should be noted that in most towns and cities, storm drains flow directly to streams and rivers. Trash on sidewalks and streets and in gutters is swept into the storm drain system when it rains. Just as a drop of rain can travel from a small stream to a river to the Chesapeake Bay or the Atlantic Ocean, so can a piece of litter. According to The Ocean Conservancy, 60% to 80% of debris found on ocean beaches is washed, blown, or dumped from shore.

Behavior Behind the Debris
Deliberate littering and illegal dumping contribute debris to our waterways, as do other non-deliberate actions—such as having a piece of debris blow out of your car window or off your boat. Sometimes our trash cans will be knocked over by animals or the wind, resulting in more accidental litter. Remember: there is a behavior and a person behind every piece of debris we find in our waterways. The behaviors that lead to litter and debris in our waterways can be put into five categories:

1. Litter from Recreational Activities and Convenience Food Consumption
This category includes trash from fast-food restaurants and convenience stores that is littered by people in cars, or is left behind after a picnic. People who litter fast-food items contribute a significant amount of debris to our waterways—in fact, on many of our beaches and waterside parks, this is often the largest source of litter. Other items include bags, balloons, beverage containers, clothing, and toys.

Inland Sources of Marine Debris
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, land-based sources cause 80% of the marine debris found on our beaches and in our oceans. In addition to litter on our streets, other land-based sources include landfills, ill-maintained garbage bins and trash that is illegally dumped in or near water bodies. Data collected by The Ocean Conservancy indicate that the debris items most frequently found on our nation's beaches and waterways are related to fast-food consumption (i.e., bottles, cans, cups, plates, food containers, straws, etc.) and smoking activities (i.e., cigarette filters and other litter such as disposable lighters). Some people illegally dump tires, car parts, old refrigerators, construction waste, and other trash into our rivers and bays.

2. Debris from Ocean and Waterway Activities
This category includes fishing-related items from recreational and commercial fishermen like nets, fishing line, and bait boxes. Debris can also come from offshore oil and gas rigs, and from ships (military, cruise, and commercial).

Seals and other animals that live in or near the water can be entangled by fishing-related items such as nets. Photo courtesy of The Ocean Conservancy

Marine Debris from Boats
While in the past it was common practice for boaters to dispose of shipboard garbage by simply throwing it overboard, this is illegal now due to federal laws and international agreements. Growing public awareness and concern for controlling debris in our oceans and waterways has led to international, national, and state-wide 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 that signed this international protocol that made dumping plastic into the ocean 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.

In Virginia, we have litter laws, and also a ban on the mass release of balloons (click here to learn more about balloons as litter). 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.


3. Litter from Smoking
This category includes cigarette butts, cigar tips, lighters, and the wrappers on cigarette packs. Smoking-related activities account for a tremendous amount of litter—in some places cigarette butts make up more than 85% of all littered items. Learn more about smoking related litter by clicking here.

4. Illegal Dumping Activities
This category includes household waste, refrigerators and other appliances, building and construction waste, and sometimes entire cars.

Tires are often found in our streams, rivers and bays during the International Coastal Cleanup in Virginia. They are an example of illegal dumping. Photo by Clean Virginia Waterways.

5. Personal Hygiene and Medical Debris
This category includes items from sewers that overflow, diapers, needles, and other related items. Sometimes people leave dirty diapers in parking lots, and other improper places—just one more example of how preventable most of our litter is!

Whether these items enter the aquatic environment from dumping, litter, or accidental routes, plastic debris not only looks ugly, but it can harm the animals and plants that make their homes in stream, lake, wetland, and coastal environments.

About Litter and 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

Top Ten items found in Virginia's ICC

  Litter Prevention Page   How Data from the ICC are used
  Impacts of aquatic debris   The International Coastal Cleanup in Virginia
  Article about Aquatic Litter and Debris (written by CVW for school teachers and others)   Solutions
  Cigarette Butt Litter—A Special Problem   Balloons as litter—A Special Problem

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Compiled by Clean Virginia Waterways, Longwood University, Farmville, VA 23909
434-395-2602 Fax: 434-395-2825 Email: