PlasticsA majority of marine debris is made up of plastics.  According to the Virginia Marine Debris Reduction Plan, the amount of plastics generated in the United States has risen sharply since 1960 and one-third of this plastic material becomes single-use disposable packaging.  Not much of this material is recovered and recycled, which means a lot of it finds its way to rivers, coastal waters, and the ocean.

Plastic marine debris is a major environmental concern for a number of reasons.  There is a large quantity, plastics last a long time, plastic items look like natural prey items to marine animals that ingest it, and also because of the chemical additives used to give plastics certain properties.  As large plastic items break apart into smaller pieces and the surface area of each particle increases, these chemicals are then released into the surrounding environment.  

Adding to this problem is the fact that some chemicals released into the ocean from all sources are hydrophobic, meaning they repel water.  These chemicals will adhere to plastics floating in seawater making the debris even more toxic.  This is why researchers are studying whether the compounds used in manufacturing plastics and the chemicals that adhere to plastic debris have any lethal and sub-lethal impacts (Virginia Marine Debris Reduction Plan, 2014).  There is also growing evidence and concern that harmful chemicals are being consumed by people because they can move up the food chain starting with very small organisms.


Full Name

Common Examples


Polyethylene terephthalate

Soda bottles


Polystyrene (solid & foam)

Take-out food containers, disposable cutlery



Plastic bags


High-density polyethylene

Detergent bottles


Polyvinyl chloride

Plumbing pieces, fishing gear



Drinking straws


Polyamide (nylon)




Polyester clothing