Aquatic Litter and Debris—Impacts

Litter not only detracts from the beauty of a riverside park or beach, but also can be a health and safety hazard for humans and aquatic wildlife. Another big impact of litter is the cost to society. Millions of dollars are spent every year in Virginia by state and local governments, parks, schools, and businesses to pick up litter.

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 that can enter the water. Cigarette butts and some other littered items contain toxic chemicals that leach into the water.

Impacts on Aquatic Animals—Entanglement and Ingestion
Aquatic debris can be particularly dangerous and often lethal to wildlife. Each year, more than 100,000 marine mammals die when they ingest debris or become entangled in ropes, fishing line, fishing nets, and other debris dumped into the ocean. As many as 2 million seabirds also die every year due to debris ingestion and entanglement. Fishing line, fishing nets, strapping bands, and six-pack rings can hamper the mobility of aquatic animals. Once entangled, animals have trouble eating, breathing, or swimming, all of which can have fatal results. According the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), marine debris threatens over 265 different species of marine and coastal wildlife through entanglement, smothering, and interference with digestive systems.

The ribbons on balloons contribute to animal entanglement. Photo courtesy of The Ocean Conservancy.

Sea turtles, birds, fish, and mammals often mistake plastic items for food. For instance, sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, one of their favorite foods. With plastic filling their stomachs, animals have a false feeling of being full, and may die of starvation. Learn more from the Global Marine Litter Information Gateway:

Some species of sea turtles love to eat jellyfish. Our shopping bags look like jellyfish when they are in the water, and are often eaten by sea turtles. All sea turtle species in U.S. waters are endangered or threatened with extinction. Photo courtesy of The Ocean Conservancy.
Sea turtles, seals, fish, marine mammals, and birds can all die when they become entangled in nets and other marine debris. Photo courtesy of The Ocean Conservancy.

Impacts on Human Health and Safety
Trash in our waterways can also affect human health and safety. Hazards include glass and metal left on the beach, or hospital needles and syringes that can carry disease. Fishermen and recreational boaters can also be endangered as nets and monofilament fishing line wrap around a boat's propeller. Plastic sheeting and bags can also block the cooling intakes on boats. Such damage is hazardous and costly in terms of repair and lost fishing time. A survey in Oregon revealed that nearly 60 percent of fishermen had experienced equipment damage due to marine debris, costing thousands of dollars in repairs.

Here is a boat that was disabled when fishing line wrapped around the propeller. Photo courtesy of The Ocean Conservancy.

Economic Impacts from Aquatic Debris
A tremendous amount of time, effort, and machinery is devoted in Virginia to cleaning up litter on the land and in our waterways. Many Virginian coastal communities and parks have regular beach sweeping to remove trash left behind by visitors. Virginia's Department of Transportation spends more than $6 million to remove litter from our roadsides in addition to the thousands of hours Adopt-A-Highway volunteers spend picking it up. For information on the Adopt-A-Highway program, see

College grounds maintenance crews spend thousands of hours every year picking up litter, as do employees of restaurants, hotels, stores, and other businesses. Every county in Virginia has a Litter Prevention and Recycling Coordinator. To find the coordinator in your county, visit this website:

In addition to costly cleanup procedures, there are other economic impacts that are harder to put a price on. Littered parks, marinas, and beaches suffer from lost tourist income, and fisheries that are full of debris can result in decreased yield of food such as crabs and fish.

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
  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: