Litter and Debris in our Waterways—

Impacts, Sources and Solutions

Here, you can learn about litter in our rivers, streams, and on our beaches.

What is "aquatic litter and debris?" Where does it come from and how does it hurt animals, habitats, and people? What types of litter are special problems? Where can you learn more about litter, and what can be done to prevent littering?

Teachers and Students: Read this article about Aquatic Litter and Debris

Defining Aquatic Litter and Debris   Types of aquatic debris
Sources of Aquatic Debris   Solutions to Aquatic Debris
Impacts of Aquatic Debris   "Litter Prevention" Ideas

Special Litter Problems—Plastics, Cigarette Butts and Balloons

Plastics—A Special Problem
Plastic is widely used due to its light weight, strength, durability, versatility, and low cost. We use plastic bags, bottles, cups, forks, spoons, straws, and six-pack rings. Many toys are made from plastics, as are tools including strapping bands, and plastic sheeting. Plastic is also used in making packing materials and fishing gear. Plastics can take hundreds of years to break down, so they may continue to entangle and kill animals year after year. One study found that almost 90 percent of the debris floating on our oceans is plastic. The filters on cigarettes are also made from plastic fibers.

Cigarette Butts—A Special Problem
According to data collected by The Ocean Conservancy, cigarette butts are the most common type of litter on earth. Collectively, they weigh in the millions of pounds. Trillions of cigarette butts are disposed of yearly, many directly tossed into the environment. Cigarette filters are made out of cellulose acetate, a plastic that takes several years to degrade. Click here to learn more.

Cigarette butts accumulate outside of buildings, on parking lots, and in streets where they can be transported through storm drains into streams and rivers. In addition to being unsightly, the chemicals that leach out of cigarette butt litter present a toxic threat to aquatic animals. The compounds in discarded cigarette butts (the filters and remnant tobacco) are biohazards to the water flea, Daphnia magna, a small crustacean at the lower end of, but important to, the aquatic food chain. Cigarette butts in the environment are an important litter issue—not a smoking issue. Click here to read an article about cigarette butts' effects on the water flea.

Balloons as litter—A Special Problem


Data about litter in Virginia's waterways:

History of the International Coastal Cleanup in Virginia -- People, Pounds and Miles

"Top Ten" List for Virginia
Unusual items found in previous International Coastal Cleanup events in Virginia

Learn More about marine debris, litter, and their impacts:

The Ocean Conservancy

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- This Marine Debris web site has a wealth of information:

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Debris Education has brochures, fact sheets, posters, guidebooks, and curriculum tools for teachers.

Virginia Department of Environmental Quality's office of Litter Prevention and Recycling

Most of this page, and the other litter pages are from the curriculum packet "Virginia's Water Resources: A Tool for Teachers" written by Dr. Jeremy Lloyd, Longwood University and Kathleen Register, Clean Virginia Waterways. Click here for PDF files of the "Litter and Debris in Our Waterways" chapter and other chapters from this packet.

Return to Clean Virginia Waterways' Home Page

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