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.

Why is this man so happy? Because he has help make Lake Accotank a cleaner and safer place for wildlife and people.

Are Cleanups the answer?
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.


This young volunteer helped clean the Potomac River during the International Coastal Cleanup in Virginia.


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. 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.

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: