SAMS news room

Littering our shores

Mainland Scotland’s coast measures 6718 km (4174 miles). In 2010, more than 53,000 pieces of litter were collected from a sample of 22 km of Scottish beaches. That’s more than one item for every step trod and that’s not pretty. What’s more, marine litter negatively impacts our environment, society and economy, and new research suggests that changes in public behaviour, awareness and attitude are key to the solution.

The joint study by the James Hutton Institute (JHI) and SAMS found that marine litter costs Scotland a minimum of £16.8 million per annum. Worse still, this figure is thought to be a gross underestimate because there is no data on the economic impact of litter on many sectors, like tourism or recreation.

Their research pulls together a range of information and places it within the Scottish context. One source was a survey conducted by the Marine Conservation Society in 2010 that showed that the public and other “non-sourced” sectors, which also mean us, generate about 66% of our beach litter.

Marine litter includes manufactured or processed, solid material that has been disposed or abandoned in the marine and coastal environment whether from land- or sea-based activities. In the UK, 63% of marine litter is plastic and although plastic hasn’t been around long enough for us to know for certain, research suggests it is highly persistent in the marine environment, taking from 100 to 1000 years to degrade.

While it is clear that marine litter impacts a range of resources, its effects, particularly on ecosystems, are less well understood. Yet marine litter is undoubtedly undermining efforts to meet policy demands laid down in the European Marine Strategy Framework Directive – legislation the UK adopted in 2010 that requires EU member states “to manage their seas to achieve or maintain Good Environmental Status (GES) by 2020”.

During their study, the JHI-SAMS team looked at the extent of the marine litter problem, the impacts and the existing activities and regulation to deal with it. They identified more than enough legislation and initiatives at local, regional and national scales, but first and foremost saw the need for those legislation and initiatives to be coordinated into a single marine litter strategy for Scotland.

The report also noted that Scotland could better learn from and coordinate with the global movement in tackling marine litter, and offered concrete policy options on how we can become a society that embraces the concept of ‘waste as resource’: reuse, recycle, recover.

“When addressing marine litter, a strategy should take a systems approach addressing not only the removal, but also the sources from terrestrial and marine sectors and seek progress against the root causes of the problem, primarily human behaviour,” said the report’s lead author, Emily Hastings of the James Hutton Institute, who added that a variety of institutional, social, technological and regional innovations need to be used to effectively tackle the issue of marine litter across Scotland.

The research was commissioned by the Scottish Government. More information can be found at

< Previous|Next >