The ocean plastic pollution challenge: towards solutions in the UK - Grantham Briefing Paper 19

Topics: Earth systems science, Impacts and adaptation
Type: Briefing paper
Publication date: July 2016



Read the paper (online version). 

Authors: Dr Erik van Sebille, Dr Charikleia Spathi and Alyssa Gilbert


Litter on a beach

  • Plastic pollution is ubiquitous in the ocean but causes the most serious harm near coastlines and during its journey towards open waters. Existing in a variety of shapes and sizes, plastic litter harms marine life and incurs a cost on coastal economies. We know enough about the damage done by oceanic plastic pollution to act now. However, solutions require concerted action by a range of stakeholders.
  • The most promising solutions include:
    • Managing plastic waste at source, for instance by raising awareness
    • amongst the public of the harm caused by plastic pollution as well as the economic and intrinsic value of plastic materials. Developing and expanding the use of plastics that truly degrade in the ocean.
    • Managing waste and litter streams better: eliminating unnecessary products, ensuring adequate waste management systems are in place, setting up a circular economy for plastic products and waste where possible, boosting recycling, and incinerating unrecyclable plastic waste for energy in conjunction with the development of carbon capture and storage technology to balance the trade-off with greenhouse gas emissions. Using alternative materials to plastic where possible, such as substituting the microbeads in  cosmetics for non plastic alternatives.
    • Cleaning up existing plastic pollution, with a focus on waterways, sewerage plants and coastlines.
  • To achieve these solutions, the appropriate policy frameworks and mechanisms need to be in place. A legislative framework exists, but will require regular reviews and improvements to reduce the plastics in our environment.
  • Our modelling shows that plastic pollution from the UK floating on the ocean ends up in the Arctic, where it puts further pressure on an already stressed ecosystem.
  • Action should come first, but further scientific research in a number of areas will help pinpoint the most effective actions and create new solutions (e.g. drawing on physics, biology, ecotoxicology, materials science, engineering, and psychology).


Plastics are a major source of global marine pollution. Once plastic particles reach the marine environment, wind and global ocean currents can spread them around the world. As a result, plastics are dispersed across all oceans, and can be found in remote locations such as the Arctic, Southern Ocean and deep oceans. Ocean plastic pollution is an alarming issue due to its persistence, complexity, steady growth and the pervasive impacts it has on all aspects of ecosystems. The problem requires holistic environmental remediation solutions at a global scale.

Ocean plastic pollution has received increased attention in recent years. There have been prominent advances in primary research as well as amendments in EU legislation, notably the Marine Strategy Framework Directive. High-level statements such as the Berlin declaration in 2013 and the G7 Leaders’ statement in 2015 singled out ocean plastic pollution, helping to push this issue up the international agenda. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) leads a programme on marine litter, and is supported by, amongst others, the Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection (GESAMP).

This paper provides a summary of the scientific knowledge to date on the nature of the ocean plastic pollution challenge, current legislation and solutions from a UK perspective, and some reflections on what actions are needed now.

Read the paper (online version)

 Download: The ocean plastic pollution challenge: towards solutions in the UK - BP 19‌ (pdf)

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