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Marine Debris

Marine debris is any solid, man-made product or material that ends up in our coastal environments. These materials may be deliberately or accidentally released. In either case, marine debris negatively impacts the environment, wildlife, economies, and human health and safety.

S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) plays an active role in preventing and removing marine debris in South Carolina. Learn more about marine debris, why it's a problem, what DHEC is doing, and how you can help!

About Marine Debris

Marine debris doesn't always originate on the coast. Storm drains and waterways sweep litter from inland areas, like roadsides and parking lots, to sensitive coastal environments. Improper handling and disposal of trash by waste management, littering, and natural disasters like storms also contribute to marine debris. Closer to the shore, discarded fishing gear and abandoned boats add to the problem.

Common types of marine debris items include:

  • Plastics: ¬†water bottles, toys, grocery bags, food wrappers, cigarette butts, and more.
  • Microplastics: very small (< 5mm in size) pieces of plastic that come from larger plastics breaking down, or materials like microfibers from synthetic clothing and microbeads used in some cosmetics.
  • Photo by: Jennifer Wolf/ WolfHartt Image/ Marine Photobank - child's toy left on the beach.

    Photo by: Jennifer Wolf/ WolfHartt Image/ Marine Photobank - child's toy left on the beach.

  • Derelict Fishing Gear: nets, lines, crab pots, and other fishing equipment that has been lost, abandoned, or discarded.
  • Abandoned and Derelict Vessels
  • Other: glass bottles, metal cans, clothing, construction materials, balloons, and fireworks.

Depending on the material, some debris can take years or even centuries to break down in ocean and coastal waters, while plastic items may never fully degrade in the marine environment.

Recent estimates suggest approximately 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean every year. That is in addition to the 150 million metric tons of plastic already believed to be in the ocean.

Marine Debris Impacts

Photo by: SCDNR Marine Turtle Conservation Program - entangled loggerhead sea turtle

Photo by: SCDNR Marine Turtle Conservation Program - entangled loggerhead sea turtle

Ecosystems and Economies

Marine animals, including endangered and commercially valuable species, die every year due to marine debris ingestion and entanglement. Sea turtles and dolphins eat floating plastic bags, mistaking them for jellyfish. Bottle caps and other plastic fragments have been found in the stomachs of seabirds. Once ingested, plastic debris can cause suffocation, gastric rupture, or gut blockage followed by starvation. Derelict fishing line, nets, hooks, and traps continue to catch animals long after they are lost or abandoned. With no fisherman to reel them in or unhook them, animals are often left injured or dead. This is known as "ghost fishing."

Unnecessary wildlife death harms marine ecosystems and coastal economies that rely on fishing and wildlife viewing.

Photo by: SCDHEC-OCRM - abandoned vessel left on a coastal marsh

Photo by: SCDHEC-OCRM - abandoned vessel left on a coastal marsh.

Recreation and Navigation

Marine debris may be a nuisance that interferes with recreational activities along the coast, while abandoned vessels and derelict fishing gear can cause serious navigational hazards. Costly or irreparable damage to boats occurs when boaters strike submerged vessels, fishing nets become wrapped around propellers, plastic sheeting clogs cooling water intakes, and lost nets or lines entangle vessels.

Public Health

Research suggests that plastic debris is also contaminating our seafood. Floating plastic particles absorb harmful chemicals from surrounding waters. These contaminated particles are then eaten by marine organisms like fish, shrimp, and shellfish. Toxic chemicals have been shown to accumulate in fish tissue upon ingestion of contaminated plastic, which poses a threat to the organism itself, and potentially anything that eats it.

What DHEC is doing

DHEC is working across the state to reduce marine debris from source to sea. The agency works with communities and partners across the state to support recycling and waste management, reduce debris in coastal and marine environments, and lead outreach and education initiatives targeting marine debris.


    • S.C. Adopt-A-Beach partners have removed > 10 tons of marine debris from S.C. beaches since 2010.
    • > 30,000 cigarette butts were collected on S.C. beaches in 2013.
    • DHEC and its partners have removed > 100 abandoned vessels from S.C. coastal waterways since 2004.
    • On December 7, 2015, the Microbeads-Free Waters Act was passed - banning microbeads from all rinse-off cosmetics, including toothpaste, by 2017.
  • Abandoned and Derelict Vessels
  • Adopt-A-Beach
  • Recycling in S.C.
  • Cigarette Litter Pilot Study

What you can do