Scientists provide first public guidance on array of challenges in cleaning up plastic litter from oceans successfully

(July 29, 2013, Seattle, WA) Scientists from leading ocean research institutions in the U.S. have released the first public guidance on the array of ecological, engineering, and legal obstacles that must be overcome for plastic litter in our oceans to be cleaned up effectively.

The guidance is intended to inform the general public of the many challenges inherent in cleaning up ocean plastic debris. It also aims to inform potential developers of cleanup systems so they may channel their innovation as productively as possible.

The guidance was organized by MarineDebris.Info, a global knowledge-sharing network of ocean researchers, managers, conservationists, and industry. The guidance is available at

Marine debris, and particularly plastic marine debris, poses a significant global threat to marine life. Growing public awareness of this threat, including the recognition that floating ocean plastics tend to congregate in remote areas of the open ocean (the so-called “garbage patches”), has inspired some individuals and groups to conceive of systems for cleaning up debris at sea. These have ranged from simple towed nets to ambitious giant filtering systems stretching hundreds of kilometers.

However, these proposed systems typically fail to account for real-world ocean conditions and/or the many ecological and engineering-related challenges that would face any cleanup effort on the open ocean.

As described in more detail in the new guidance, these challenges include:

  • The depth and concentration of floating debris
  • Avoiding harm to marine life
  • The need for maintenance and anti-fouling measures
  • Legal issues

“The guidance grew out of conversations in our community of marine debris researchers and managers,” said John Davis, supervisor of the MarineDebris.Info project and a co-author of the guidance. “Some in the marine debris community see the idea of open ocean cleanup as unrealistic, while others view it as an honorable idea worth encouraging. Where the two groups may be able to agree is that any inventors of cleanup systems — who often come from outside the ocean science field — should be made aware of the diverse challenges that face cleanup at sea.”

"It's inspiring that so many people want to clean up the trash floating in our oceans, particularly the areas of the subtropical gyres known as the ‘garbage patches,’” said Goldstein. “We want to encourage creative solutions, but also communicate that the reality of trying to get very small pieces of plastic out of a very large ocean without harming marine life is extremely challenging."


The guidance was drafted by:

  • John Davis, M.M.A., of Marine Affairs Research and Education (MARE)
  • Miriam Goldstein, Ph.D., of California Sea Grant, 2013 Knauss Fellow, and Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego

Editors and contributors included:

  • Courtney Arthur, M.S., Research Specialist, NOAA Marine Debris Program
  • Pete Davison, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Scholar, Scripps Institution of Oceanography
  • Kara Lavender Law, Ph.D., Research Professor, Sea Education Association (SEA)
  • Chelsea Rochman, Ph.D., Aquatic Health Program, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California, Davis

The guidance was submitted for additional review to the MarineDebris.Info community.


For interviews, please contact:
John Davis, (425) 788-8185, jdavis [at]
Miriam Goldstein, (858) 412-7571, miriam.goldstein [at]

About MarineDebris.Info

MarineDebris.Info is the global knowledge-sharing community for marine debris management and research, with members representing government agencies, research institutions, conservation organizations, industry, and more (  It consists of a listserv, website, and live chat events allowing members of the MarineDebris.Info community to interact with leaders in the field. 

MarineDebris.Info is a project of Marine Affairs Research and Education (MARE,, a Seattle-based organization that provides a range of knowledge-sharing services to ocean managers and conservationists worldwide.  These services include the OpenChannels forum on ocean planning (, the MPA News service on marine protected areas (, and the Marine Ecosystems and Management information service ( MARE collaborates on several of its projects, including MarineDebris.Info, with the University of Washington.