What is Marine Debris?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines marine debris as any man-made object discarded, disposed of or abandoned that enters the coastal or marine environment.

Marine debris drifts into the ocean primarily from the shore but also can come from boats. Debris that washes ashore is just a small fraction of what still remains at sea to injure wildlife and soil beaches.

“The only way to truly manage the marine debris pollution issue is through prevention–changing the behaviors that cause marine debris to enter the environment.”  (NOAA)

Marine Debris Impact

Balloons can drift hundreds of miles from their point of origin. There is more than a 70% chance that balloons released into the air will burst and become marine debris causing harm to marine wildlife.

Balloons are tied with string and colorful ribbons and inevitably fall back to earth as litter. When they land on the beach or in the ocean they can entangle or strangle seabirds, sea turtles, whales, dolphins, and seals.

A submerged plastic bag or balloon can be mistaken for a jellyfish or squid. When swallowed, plastic bags, balloons and ribbons lodge in the animals’ intestines and they die of starvation.

Remnants of Styrofoam cups, plates, food containers, and coolers break down into smaller and smaller pieces if discarded on the beach. When the foam pieces are tiny, they resemble fish eggs and are lethal when ingested by seabirds.

Q: Why Are There no Trash Cans on State Beach?

 That we can all help to keep the beach clean.

Before you leave, look around your chair or mat,

Make sure there’s no trash, even butts, where you sat.

Pick up your bottles, straws, and bags that create a mess.

Ingesting plastic causes wildlife great distress.

Take your trash home and dispose of it properly there.

Be an example to others, that our beaches need care.

Trash Barrel Negatives

Trash barrels attract stinging insects such as bees or wasps, to which some children and adults are allergic if stung.

Trash barrels are expensive to maintain; tax money that can be put to better use.

Trash barrels are an eyesore on a beautiful barrier beach.

Food in trash barrels attracts rats, skunks, gulls and raccoons; predators of shorebirds, many of which on the Vineyard are rare species.

Broken glass and other sharp items discarded around trash barrels can cut bare-footed beach goers. 

Top 10 Debris Items for Massachusetts Beaches in 2009

  1. Cigarettes/Cigarette Filters: 7,683
  2. Food Wrappers/Containers: 3,292
  3. Caps and Lids: 1,194
  4. Bags (Plastic): 9,391
  5. Beverage Bottles (Plastic): 5,588
  6. Straws, Stirrers: 4,720
  7. Cups, Plates, Forks, Knives, Spoons: 4,594
  8. Beverage Cans: 3,969
  9. Beverage Bottles (Glass): 2,946
  10. Balloons: 1,990

*Courtesy Ocean Conservancy 2009 Report

What YOU Can Do

Encourage businesses that distribute free balloons as a means of advertising or to draw attention to their location to discontinue this practice.

Keep balloons indoors at all times. Find other ways to commemorate and celebrate an event better than the mass release of balloons into the air. No balloons should be released into the atmosphere at any time.

Educate smokers that the beach should not be used as an ashtray and that cigarette butts are  a form of litter. Some communities now ban smoking on beaches. Cigarette butts and filters contain hazardous chemicals that over time leach out and contaminate sand and water.

Bring a used bag to the beach to stow your trash in until you leave to prevent light items from becoming wind-blown litter.

Choose reusable items for beach picnics and recycle.

Be aware that the beach not only provides recreation for people but also is important for nesting shorebirds.


Volunteer for the Vineyard Conservation Society sponsored annual All-Island Earth Day Beach Clean-up.

Join students in the Edgartown and Oak Bluffs Schools to educate people about Carry In / Carry Out.

Visit www.marinedebris.noaa.gov.

Dedicated to the preservation of Sengekontacket Pond and its barrier beach

The Friends of Sengekontacket, Inc., appreciate the assistance of Jeffrey Brodeur, Communications and Outreach Specialist, Woods Hole Sea Grant, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, as we researched the subject of marine debris.

Illustrations and layout by Dana Gaines