A literature study on marine litter governance by Ashley Hedger.

The ocean may be vast, but it does have it limits to how much overexploitation and pollution it can take, and such damages could be irreversible.

Garrett Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons”, written in 1968, drew attention to how the users of common-pool resources create a cycle of destruction to the resources on which they have come to depend. It is in the absence of effective institutions that natural resources and the environment become vulnerable to increasing human population, consumption, and advanced technology for resource extraction, all of which have increased at unprecedented levels in the last decades (Dietz et al. 2003). Several problems threatening the world’s oceans today include overfishing, ocean disposal and spills, destruction of coastal ecosystems, land-based contamination, and climate change (Costanza et al. 1998).

Recent attention has been focused on marine litter, plastics particularly, and the growing impacts it has on the marine environment, (costal) societies and economics. Marine litter, also commonly referred to as marine debris, is defined by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) as “any persistent, manufactured, or processed solid material that is discarded, disposed of or abandoned in the marine and coastal environment” (UNEP 2009). Given UNEP’s definition of marine litter, this includes pollution sources from both land-and sea-based sources. The dual pollution sources of marine litter require multilateral organizations and other stakeholders to get involved in negotiating, implementing and enforcing regulation and management strategies. The strategies include preventive, mitigation, removing and behavior changing measures (Chen 2015). The diversity of actors (ranging e.g. from local fishers, to national governments and UN-bodies) along with a complex structure of interests and various solutions challenge the establishment of a comprehensive framework that fits different temporal and spatial scale needs.

Some of the first regulatory measures to tackle marine litter issues in the 1970s came from observed macroplastic pollution and its ingestion and entanglement of marine life. Meanwhile the focus has broadened to consider microplastics and their environmental implications on the marine environment and human health, too (Andrady 2011). First international regulations mainly focused on targeting sea-based pollution sources, such as the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The focus has shifted now to targeting the primary source of marine litter from land-based sources through several international agreements like the Global Program of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities (GPA) and others. But these agreements are in contrast to MARPOL and UNCLOS only voluntary and not of binding character (Ryan 2015, Simon and Schulte 2017, Stöfen-O´Brien 2015).

The results of the literature study have made it clear that ocean governance pertaining to marine litter today is a patchwork of international conventions and actors from different sectors with differing views. The patchwork has developed over time due to a constantly evolving knowledge base and a growing political and social attention. Over the last three decades new organizations and institutions evolved, such as multi-level stakeholder platforms (like the Global Partnership on Marine Litter). At present, a multitude of (parallel) initiatives by various actors from politics, environmental organizations, private sector, civil society and research (co-)exists. Notwithstanding the overall impression is, that there is only a handful of powerful actors shaping marine litter related ocean governance today.


Ashely Hedger accomplished an internship in the PlastX research group. Currently, she is studying the International Master of Environmental Science (IMES) at the University of Cologne.



Andrady, A. L. (2011). Microplastics in the marine environment. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 62(8), 1596-1605.

Chen, C.-L. (2015). Regulation and Management of Marine Litter. In Bergmann, M., Gutow, L., Klages, M. (eds): Marine Anthropogenic Litter. Springer, 395-428.

Costanza, R., Andrade, F., Antunes, P., et al. (1998). Principles for Sustainable Governance of the Oceans. Science, 281(5374), 198-199.

Dietz, T., Ostrom, E., Stern, P. (2003). The Struggle to Govern the Commons. Science, 302(5652), 1907-1912.

GPA https://www.unep.org/gpa/

GPML https://www.unep.org/gpa/what-we-do/global-partnership-marine-litter

Hardin, G. (1968). The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 162(3859), 1243-1248.

MARPOL http://www.mar.ist.utl.pt/mventura/Projecto-Navios-I/IMO-Conventions%20(copies)/MARPOL.pdf

Ryan, P.G. (2015). A brief history of marine litter research. In M. Bergmann, L. Gutow, M. Klages eds.: Marine anthropogenic litter, Springer: Berlin, 117-140

Simon, N., Schulte, L. (2017). Stopping Global Plastic Pollution: The Case for an International Convention. Ecology Publication Series, Volume 43 Heinrich Böll Foundation

Stöfen-O’Brien, A. (2015). The International and European Legal Regime Regulating Marine Litter in the EU. Nomos: Baden-Baden

UNCLOS http://www.un.org/Depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/unclos_e.pdf

UNEP (2009). Marine litter. A global challenge. Nairobi.