Marine debris


What is marine debris?

Marine debris is rubbish or litter that finds its way into the marine environment.

Plastic is the most common type of marine debris found on beaches in the Great Barrier Reef. This is consistent with worldwide figures and comprises between 50 to 90 per cent by number of all debris items recorded.

Three major challenges to the marine environment are plastic bags, single use plastic bottles, and cigarette butts.

Watch this video (produced by Boyne Island Primary School) to find out more: From Road to Reef - where does your litter end up?

How does marine debris affect the environment and marine life?

Marine debris comes from both land and sea-based sources and can travel immense distances. It can pose a navigation hazard, has the potential to transport chemical contaminants and transport invasive species. It can also smother coral, entangle wildlife or be ingested. This not only causes death or injury for wildlife it negatively affects tourism and poses a threat to human health.

Both the Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report 2014 and strategic assessment both outlined issues associated with marine debris.

According to the Outlook Report common items of marine debris found within the Region are plastic bags, discarded fishing gear, plastic and glass bottles, rubber thongs, aerosols and drink cans.

Plastic is the most prevalent type of marine debris found on beaches worldwide, comprising between 50 to 90 per cent by number of all debris items recorded. 

Between 2008 and March 2014, about 683,000 individual items of marine debris, weighing over 42 tonnes, were collected from the Region’s beaches by volunteers in the Australian Marine Debris Initiative. 

Marine debris from the catchment generally appears to accumulate and remain confined within the lagoon system of the Reef but with a northward movement.

At the southern end of the Reef, debris appears to be more ocean-sourced.

Large deposits of debris are accumulating in the northern most parts of the Reef that are of international origin. 

How are we responding?

We’re working with communities and industries to minimise the source and occurrence of marine debris in the Great Barrier Reef.

With support through the Australian Government’s Reef Trust we have already seen on-ground community clean-ups, targeted education and awareness raising. This initiative forms one of the four key projects to be delivered under the Australian Government’s Dugong and Turtle Projection Plan.

Major marine debris awareness and reduction campaigns so far include:

  • April 2015 - Marine debris was removed along the Capricorn Coast following tropical cyclone Marcia. Over four days, GBRMPA, Tangaroa Blue Foundation, indigenous rangers, traditional owners, Livingstone Shire Council staff, local businesses and volunteers joined together to remove 5.43 tonnes of debris. Volunteers covered more than 17 kilometres of coastline collecting fragmented hard plastics, rope, nets, boat hulls, tyres along with usual items such as a cement pontoon.
  • May 2015 - Gladstone Local Marine Advisory Group invited aspiring local video makers to capture the issue of marine debris and help raise awareness about how marine debris threatens the Reef.  
  • September 2015 - Reef Guardian School Future Leaders Eco Challenge events across Queensland focused on raising awareness about marine debris, local clean-ups with students and activities around schools to reduce litter from entering local waterways.
  • October 2015 - More than 1100 volunteers took part in the Great Barrier Reef Clean-up event collecting more than 11.68 tonne of debris from 30 sites from Cape York to Bundaberg. GBRMPA worked in partnership with Australian Marine Debris Initiative, Tangaroa Blue Foundation, Eco Barge Clean Seas Inc, Reef Guardian Councils and local volunteers to run the series of local clean-ups to help reduce debris in the Reef lagoon ahead of the wet season.
  • December 2015 - Many Reef Guardian Councils along the Reef catchment held free rubbish tip days to encourage the community not to illegally dump materials which could be washed out through local waterways during the wet season.


Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority marine debris clean up in October 2015

  • What you can do

    purple coral

    Everyone has a role to play in protecting our Great Barrier Reef. Find out what you can do to help protect this great Australian icon.