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Marine Debris

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These activities build on the content below.

Humans Depend on Earth's Resources


Humans depend on Earth’s land, ocean, atmosphere, and biosphere for many resources—including air, water, soil, minerals, metals, energy, plants, and animals. As the human population grows, the consumption of natural resources also grows. Some of these resources are renewable over human lifetimes, and some are nonrenewable (Fig. 1). A dependence on nonrenewable resources can lead to dire consequences for the sustainability of communities and the ecosystems they interact with. Our reliance on resources that we use only one time, especially those made of durable materials like plastics, contribute heavily to pollution such as marine debris. Many negative effects of human activities are reversible with responsible management. For example, communities are treating sewage, reducing usage, and reusing and recycling materials. Scientists and engineers can make major contributions by developing technologies that produce less pollution and waste. Individuals and communities can also contribute to protecting the environment by managing their own resource use and waste produciton. 

Marine Debris


One of the most prevalent human impacts across our global oceans is marine debris (Fig. 2). Marine debris comes in all shapes and sizes, from large fishing nets to microplastics. Marine debris can impact the environment, navigation safety, the economy, and the health of humans, plants, and animals. Understanding where marine debris comes from can help us to reduce the production of debris, remove existing debris from the aquatic environment, and recycle the debris that we've already produced.




Microplastics are small particles of plastic material less than 5mm in length. Microplastics often find their way into the ocean and onto the beach (Fig 3.). There are both primary and secondary forms of microplastic. Primary microplastics are those that are already 5mm or less in size (such as microfibers from clothing, microbeads, and plastic pellets). Secondary microplastics are those that are created by the degradation of larger plastic materials. Since plastic does not readily breakdown, plastic materials persist in the environment for thousands of years. Plastics often carry persistent organic pollutants (POPs) that can bioaccumlate through the food web when ingested by animals. Additionally, ingested microplastics are difficult or impossible to process, and eating plastics can cause starvation in animals that cannot pass the materials through their digestive system.

Microplastic curriculum
Are you a teacher who is thinking about incorporating microplastics into their lesson plans? Or an informal educator looking for microplastics activities to do with youth?

Check out the microplastic curriculum materials currated by Florida Sea Grant.

Marine Debris in Hawai'i

Coastal areas and island nations are particularly exposed to the challenges that come from marine debris. Ocean circulation systems create gyres that collect and concentrate marine debris. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a well known example of a collection of marine debris in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaiʻi and California (Fig. 4). The Hawaiian Island chain sits in the center of the North Pacific Gyre and acts as a fine toothed comb, sifting out debris as it cycles through. 


Reducing Marine Debris

Efforts to prevent plastic pollution and remove microplastics in Hawai'i are underway through direct removal projects and policy to prevent future plastic use. On December 4, 2019, the strongest single-use plastic ban in the nation was approved by the Honolulu City Council. This ban, called Bill 40, will comprehensively phase out single-use plastics (such as take-out containers) across Oahu by 2022. Check out the overview attached below for more information:



Organizations such as the Surfrider Foundation work to protect oceans and coastlines through policy and science. For example, the Seed project is using innovative methods of buoyant seperation to remove microplastics (Fig. 5). Check out to learn more about what they do and how you can participate!


Most people think all plastics can go into the recycling bin but in reality, less than 9% of recycled material is actually “recycled”. This causes a huge problem at facilities and also gives people the false idea that what they are throwing away is being recycled. Plastic products generally have a recycling code to help you determine if it is recyclable. See examples below (Fig. 6):


Recycling in Hawaiʻi

To learn more, check out for details of your specific county. has some educational tools and other recourses for individuals living on Oʻahu. Below is a recycling and disposal guide:


Recycled Art


Using recycled products to create art has been on the rise as a method to raise awareness and inspire communities to reduce waste production. One organization, Washed Ashore, builds and exhibits aesthetically powerful art to educate a global audience about plastic pollution in the ocean and waterways and spark positive changes in consumer habits, such as the jellyfish sculpture to the left (Fig. 7). Check out their site for more curriculum materials. Check out examples of recycled art all over the world and plan to create your own in the further investigation below.

NOAA Marine Debris Program

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Program has developed some tools for educators, including an educators guide, monitoring toolkit, and presentation (attached below). 


Marine Debris Vocabulary

  • Bioaccumulation: the gradual accumulation of substances, such as pesticides or other chemicals in an organism
  • Great Pacific Garbage Patch: a collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean
  • Gyre: a circular pattern of currents in an ocean basin.
  • Marine Debris: is any persistent solid material that is manufactured (or processed) and disposed of, or abandoned, in the marine environment or the Great Lakes.
  • Microplastics: extremely small pieces of plastic debris in the environment resulting from the disposal and breakdown of consumer products and industrial waste.
  • Nonrenewable Resource: a finite resource of economic value that cannot be readily replaced by natural means at a quick enough pace to keep up with consumption.
  • Persistent organic pollutants (POPs): a hazardous organic chemical compound that is resistant to biodegradation and thus remains in the environment for a long time.
  • Pollution: the presence in or introduction into the environment of a substance or thing that has harmful or poisonous effects.
  • Recycling: the action or process of converting waste into reusable material.
  • Renewable Resource: a substance of economic value that can be replaced or replenished in less time than it takes to draw the supply down.
  • Sustainability: avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance



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Exploring Our Fluid Earth, a product of the Curriculum Research & Development Group (CRDG), College of Education. University of Hawaii, 2011. This document may be freely reproduced and distributed for non-profit educational purposes.