Marine debris includes human-made trash, litter, discarded equipment and other solid material that enters our oceans and waterways and ends up floating out to sea or fouling our beaches and shorelines. Ninety percent of marine debris is plastic, which breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, accumulates pollutants and ends up in wildlife and in the food we eat. Soundkeeper holds cleanups around the Puget Sound region to get trash off our shorelines and out of our waterways, and works to support policies that can move us towards more responsible consumption habits.

Marine Debris Removal

Trash in the water and along shorelines isn’t just ugly. Wildlife often mistake trash for food, especially small pieces of plastic and cigarette butts. Eating marine debris can cause suffocation or starvation. By 2050, scientists say 90 percent of marine birds worldwide will have eaten plastic. Almost a quarter of cetacean species have been documented with plastic in their bodies. More than 260 unique species have been found tangled in discarded fishing gear in Puget Sound.

Much of the trash found in the environment also has  pollutants in it that damage water quality. The chemicals in plastic leach out into water and are absorbed by people and wildlife. Cigarette butts are the most commonly found type of trash on shorelines worldwide. The filters contain hazardous chemicals like formaldehyde, chromium, and propylene glycol. Studies show that chemicals from just one cigarette butt can kill fish and marine life.

Plastic doesn’t biodegrade in the environment. Instead it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, which continue to pollute our waters. Plastic particles smaller than 5 millimeters are known as microplastics, and they’ve been found in samples taken from every ocean on the planet.

Filter feeders, like krill and mussels, eat these tiny particles. Research shows that the plastics accumulate in their gut and circulatory system. When other organisms eat those creatures, they take on the plastic burden, and so on up the food chain.

The best way to deal with marine trash is to stop it at the source, by disposing of all our waste and finding ways to reduce the amount of waste we produce in the first place. Cleaning up trash from streets and shorelines, before it gets in the water, is also a critical piece of protecting our waterways.

Current Actions

As the only species that produces plastic, we are the problem. But we can also be the solution. Soundkeeper hosts cleanups almost every week. We also provide tools and direction to volunteers interested in cleaning up beaches in their area. We’re the regional organizer for the Puget Sound part of the International Coastal Cleanup, the world’s largest single day volunteer effort worldwide, which in 2015 removed over 18 million pounds of trash from shorelines around the globe. Soundkeeper also organizes the Seattle Summer Cleanup, a series of events to clean up Seattle’s urban waterways.

We’re following research on microplastic pollution in Puget Sound and around the globe. Some states have taken steps to deal with sources of microplastics, banning plastic beads in cosmetics and toothpaste.

Want to take action on plastic? Sign the Plastic Pledge!


Northwest Straits derelict fishing gear removal program

EPA Trash Free Waters page

Puget Sound International Coastal Cleanup Report

Bag Ban Implementation Fact Sheet