NABU e.V .: The NABU project Seas without Plastic

Marine Litter polluting our oceans

From a today’s perspective a world without plastic is unimaginable. About 100 years ago the success story of plastic began and changed the life on our planet fundamentally. Regarding the oceans, plastics are one of the most urgent environmental problems of our time. Giant plastic gyres are floating around the oceans. Marine mammals entangle themselves in old fishing nets, feed on plastic, starve to death with a stomach full of plastic and tiny plastic pieces are entering the marine food web.

Plastic waste is a global problem concerning our environment, because plastic is never disappearing. Plastics do not biodegrade but only break down into smaller pieces and become so called microplastics. For a plastic bag this process takes up to 25 years, for a plastic bottle 450 years. In 2015 scientists estimate the annual input of plastic waste into our seas to unbelievable five to 13 million tons of plastic. According to the United Nations Environment Programme this corresponds 80 percent of the total input of litter. In average 18.000 plastic pieces are floating on every square kilometer ocean surface. On top of the list of the most frequent finds there are cigarette butts, plastic bags and remains of fisher nets. Hydrographic vortexes concentrate the waste in giant gyres consisting of waste. The so called “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” has meanwhile reached the size of middle Europe. The source of the litter varies among the different maritime regions. Besides large pieces of waste that decompose over the years, nature conservationists are concerned about the direct input of so called microplastics, plastic particles that are as less than five millimeters in its largest dimension. One direct source of microplastics are microbeads used in personal care products, which are too small to be retained by the standard filters used at sewage treatment plants, and thus enter the marine environment.

Deficient waste management is leading to catastrophic environmental conditions at Ghana’s coasts ©NABU/P. Scholl
Fatal consequences for marine animals

The consequences accompanying marine litter are dramatic for the environment. Dolphins entangle themselves in old nets and suffocate miserably. Up to one million seabirds die every year. Like turtles they confuse lighters, toothbrushes or pieces of plastic with their natural food, e.g. fishes or squids. They cannot digest the plastic or excrete it completely. They starve with a full stomach und die of inner injuries. In one of the largest breeding colonies of Laysan Albatrosses on the Midway Islands in the North Pacific two out of five chicks die due to the consequences of marine litter. Fishes and filter feeders like mussels or corals accumulate the microscopic plastic pieces in their digestive system and pass it along the food web. In addition microplastics possess the dangerous characteristic to adsorb in water solved environmental toxins like DDT or PCBs on its surface. Up to now we do not have enough knowledge about microplastic in the foodweb and how this can also affect humans. In addition plastic particles possess the dangerous characteristic to accumulate in water dissolved environment pollutants on their surface.

Many Sea birds use plastic waste as nesting material with dangerous consequences © NABU/J. Baer
North Sea and Baltic Sea are affected

Also in North and Baltic Sea the amount of marine litter is inexorable increasing. Estimated 600.000 m3 of waste can be found on the seabed of the North Sea and municipalities at the coast have to spend millions of Euros every year to frequently clean their beaches for tourists. In the Wadden Sea one can find on 100 m of coastline on average 236 pieces of waste of different size, about 75 percent of them are made out of plastic. At beaches of the Baltic Sea, NABU found on average 85 pieces of waste on Fehmarn and on Rügen approximately 190 pieces on 100 m coastline. Plastic – about 30 pieces in average – is found in almost every stomach of dead fulmars along the North Sea coast.

We have to act: now!

In 2008 the Marine Strategy Framework Directive was adopted by the European member states. It obligates them to take measures so marine litter does not have damaging consequences for coastal and marine environment and aims to achieve “Good Environmental Status” of the EU’s marine waters by 2020. The central solutions to the problem of marine litter can often be found ashore. We have to move away from the excessive consumption of plastic, away from short-lived disposable products and towards saving resources and efficient material cycles. We need a research policy that develops entirely new synthetic materials. These have to be produced without problematic additives (colorants, plasticizers) and should be at the same time biological degradable, in case they end up in nature. Our products have to be durable, repairable and recyclable. We need to strengthen multi-use systems, for high-quality circular economy. We all have to take joint responsibility for the prevention of plastic waste. Consequently marine protection starts at home, reconsider your own consumption patterns and waste disposal.


NABU volunteer cleaning a beach © NABU/F. Paulin
NABU project Seas without plastic

In 2010, NABU has launched the project Seas without plastic. With information events, cleanups, monitoring activities and regional waste prevention projects, NABU fights marine litter. In 2011 NABU set up the first Fishing for Litter initiative in Germany. At the project ports, the fishermen are given big bags in which to put the litter that gets caught in their nets, for them to bring it back to dry land and have it disposed of free of charge. Every year in September NABU takes part in the International Coastal Cleanup Day. This year, 252 NABU-volunteers collected 1.2000 kg of waste at eleven different coastal areas and riverbanks. The sites, where NABU volunteers have been active, can be found here.

But the problem cannot be solved only by carrying out cleanups. As part of a project funded by the Federal Environment Agency NABU developed measures for effectively preventing litter to enter the marine environment. The first pilot municipality is Fehmarn. The island wants to reduce the consumption of plastic bags drastically, has announced to fight cigarette butts and promotes a broad information campaign for residents and tourists.

Animal Welfare Foundation Bösche supports Seas without plastic

With the financial support of Tierschutz-Stiftung Bösche NABU is going to clean a beach from dangerous waste in spring 2016, is holding an informative meeting with an accompanying movie presentation and is developing an art installation to raise awareness for the problem of littering of North- and Baltic Sea. Thank you very much for the support! For more information go to