Tackling Marine Litter with Technology: The Role of Innovation in Addressing a Global Problem

Hugo Miguel Silva


Sara Freitas


The world's oceans are facing a growing problem of marine litter, which is affecting marine life and the ecosystems that support them. The problem is so significant that it has been identified as a global issue that requires a coordinated effort from governments, industries, and individuals to mitigate its impact. While many initiatives and programmes have been put in place to address marine litter, can technology play a crucial role in tackling this problem? This article explores the potential of technology in addressing marine litter and the types of technology that can be used.

What is Marine Litter

Marine litter refers to any human-made solid material that is discarded, disposed of, or abandoned in the marine environment, including plastic, metal, glass, rubber, and other materials. Marine litter is a serious problem with significant environmental, economic, and social impact. It harms marine wildlife, degrades marine ecosystems, and negatively impacts human health.

Some facts and figures:

  • An estimated eight million tons of plastic waste enters the oceans every year. (Source: UN Environment Programme)
  • Plastic waste has been found in all parts of the ocean, including the deep sea and remote areas such as the Arctic and Antarctic. (Source: National Geographic)
  • Marine litter can harm and kill marine animals, such as sea turtles, whales, and seabirds, through ingestion or entanglement. (Source: Ocean Conservancy)
  • Plastic waste can take hundreds of years to break down in the ocean, leading to long-term environmental damage. (Source: National Geographic)
  • Marine litter can also have a significant economic impact, such as damage to fisheries and tourism industries. (Source: European Commission)
  • It is estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish by weight if current trends continue. (Source: World Economic Forum)
  • The cost of the global impact of plastic pollution on marine ecosystems is estimated to be at least $13 billion per year. (Source: The Pew Charitable Trusts)

  • Types of Marine Litter Technologies

    There are three types of marine litter technologies that can be used to address the problem: preventing, monitoring, and cleanup technologies.

    Preventing technologies

    Are an essential aspect of mitigating the problem of marine litter. These technologies primarily focus on reducing the amount of litter produced in the first place, by implementing measures that discourage littering and encourage responsible waste disposal practices. One example of such technologies is smart waste management systems, which use sensors to monitor and optimise waste collection and processing. These systems can help reduce the amount of litter that ends up in our rivers and oceans by ensuring that waste is collected promptly and processed appropriately.

    Another approach to prevent marine litter is the use of biodegradable materials. These materials are designed to break down naturally in the marine environment, reducing the impact of litter on marine life and ecosystems. Biodegradable materials can be used in a wide range of applications, from packaging to fishing gear, and they are sustainable alternative to traditional materials that take decades or even centuries to break down.

    Technology-based education and awareness campaigns connected to citizen science can also help prevent marine litter. These campaigns can be used to educate people about the impact of litter on the marine environment and encourage responsible waste disposal practices. Citizen science programmes can also involve the public in data collection and monitoring, providing valuable insights into the extent and sources of marine litter.

    Monitoring Technologies

    Are critical for understanding the extent and sources of marine litter. These technologies provide valuable data on the movement and amount of litter in the ocean, allowing researchers and policymakers to identify patterns and develop targeted strategies for prevention and cleanup.

    One of the most promising monitoring technologies is the use of "smart" sensors e.g., radar, hyperspectral cameras, which can be deployed on satellites, drones, and airplanes. These sensors can capture high-resolution images and other data on the location, size, and composition of marine litter. The data can then be processed using artificial intelligence methods and analysed to identify hotspots of litter accumulation and track the movement of debris in the oceans. This information can help researchers and policymakers develop effective strategies to tackle marine litter.

    In-situ sensors are another important monitoring technology. These sensors can be installed in buoys or other long-term permanent infrastructures in the oceans, providing real-time data on water quality, temperature, and other environmental factors that can affect the distribution and movement of marine litter. By monitoring these factors, researchers can gain insights into the sources and pathways of marine litter, enabling targeted intervention strategies.

    Cleanup Technologies

    Are crucial to remove existing marine litter from the ocean and preventing it from causing further harm to the marine environment. These technologies include a range of tools and strategies, each with its own strengths and limitations.

    Autonomous Surface Vehicles (ASVs) are one type of cleanup technology that has gained increasing interest in recent years. These vehicles are equipped with nets or steppers that can collect debris from the surface of the ocean. Some ASVs are also designed to navigate autonomously, allowing them to cover large areas of ocean and collect debris in hard-to-reach locations. ASVs can be especially effective in areas with high concentrations of litter, such as around coastal cities and shipping lanes.

    Another type of cleanup technology is barriers, which can be fixed or mobile and placed in waterways to prevent marine litter from reaching the ocean. Fixed barriers are typically installed across rivers or other waterways that flow into the ocean, while mobile barriers can be deployed in areas with high concentrations of litter. These barriers can be effective in preventing litter from entering the ocean, but they require ongoing maintenance and may not be suitable for all locations.

    When, How, and Where Technology Can Be Used

    The deployment of technology to address marine litter depends on the specific technology and the location and extent of the litter problem. Some aforementioned technologies are already being used in certain parts of the world, while others are still in development. Governments, non-governmental organisations, and private companies play a role in the development and deploying of technology to address marine litter. Collaboration and coordination between stakeholders will be important to ensure that technology is used effectively to tackle this global problem.

    In conclusion, the problem of marine litter is a pressing issue that demands urgent action from governments, industries, and individuals worldwide. The deployment of advanced technology is a critical component in addressing the issue of marine litter. Preventing technologies, monitoring technologies, and cleanup technologies are all viable solutions to mitigate the problem. However, successful implementation of these technologies requires a concerted effort and collaboration between all stakeholders involved. It is imperative that we work together to ensure that technology is harnessed effectively to tackle this global problem and safeguard our oceans and marine life for future generations. Let us act now and take the necessary steps towards a cleaner and healthier marine ecosystem.


    UN Environment Programme. (2018). Marine Litter and Microplastics: Global lessons and research to inspire action and guide policy change. Retrieved from https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/25496/singleUsePlastic_sustainability.pdf

    National Geographic. (2019). The world's plastic pollution crisis explained. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/07/how-to-stop-plastic-pollution-crisis/

    Ocean Conservancy. (n.d.). Marine Debris & Plastics. Retrieved from https://oceanconservancy.org/trash-free-seas/marine-debris-plastics/

    National Geographic. (2019). The world's plastic pollution crisis explained. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/07/how-to-stop-plastic-pollution-crisis/

    European Commission. (2021). Marine Litter. Retrieved from https://ec.europa.eu/environment/marine/good-environmental-status/descriptor-10/index_en.html

    World Economic Forum. (2016). The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-new-plastics-economy-rethinking-the-future-of-plastics

    The Pew Charitable Trusts. (2021). The Cost of Plastic Pollution. Retrieved from https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2021/06/22/the-cost-of-plastic-pollution