Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution

Marine litter is a transboundary challenge that is rooted in unsustainable production and consumption patterns, poor solid waste management and lack of infrastructure, lack of adequate legal and policy frameworks and poor enforcement, including on interregional cross-border trade of plastic waste, and a lack of financial resources. Marine litter is any persistent, manufactured or processed solid material discarded into the sea or rivers or on beaches; brought indirectly to the sea with rivers, sewage, storm water or winds; or discarded or lost at sea. Marine litter poses environmental, economic, health, aesthetic and cultural threats, including degradation of marine and coastal habitats and ecosystems that incur socioeconomic losses in marine-based sectors.

The majority of the population in the nine East Asian Seas countries lives in coastal areas, contributing to rapid urbanization and the world’s highest concentrations of shipping and fishing vessel activity. Reducing and minimizing regional marine litter from both land-based and sea-based sources requires successfully addressing waste leakage and disposal into rivers, along coastlines, and into the ocean, in the East Asian Seas region. This requires multi-stakeholder engagement across all economic sectors and groups of society to overcome linear systems of production, consumption and disposal, and to tackle marine litter at source and at sea.

At the global level, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calls for action to ‘Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources’ (Goal 14) and ‘By 2025, prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, particularly from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution’ (target 14.1). United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) resolutions on Marine Litter and Microplastics (such as UNEP/EA.4/6) recognize the importance of a regional approach to addressing marine litter as a transboundary problem, of multi-stakeholder engagement, coordination and cooperation, and stress the need to strengthen the science-policy interface, harmonize monitoring and methodologies, and prioritize a whole lifecycle approach. Regional
Seas Conventions and programmes are prompted to increase their action and coordinate efforts.

COBSEA strategies and action plans on marine litter

To address these regional and global threats and guide action in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), COBSEA participating countries adopted the Strategic Directions 2018-2022 and a revised Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter (RAP MALI) in 2019. 

In their Strategic Directions 2018-2022, COBSEA participating countries have set out to address land-based pollution, with a focus on nutrients, sediments and wastewater; and marine litter and microplastics. Human activities on land are a major threat to the health, productivity and biodiversity of the marine environment in East Asian Seas. An estimated 80 per cent of all marine pollution is caused by human activities on land in the form of solid waste leakage including plastic from inadequate waste management; sewage disposal in rivers and coastal waters; urban storm-water run-off; sediment mobilization; inadequately treated waters from industries; discharges of phosphorus and nitrogen used in agriculture; and dumping of heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants.

Sea-based marine pollution includes abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear, oil spills and pollution from sea-based activities such as shipping and tourism that threaten marine and coastal ecosystems.

The overall goal of the COBSEA RAP MALI 2019 is to consolidate, coordinate, and facilitate cooperation, and implement the necessary environmental policies, strategies and measures for sustainable, integrated management of marine litter in the East Asian Seas region. The RAP MALI comprises four main actions:

  • Action 1: Preventing and reducing marine litter from land-based sources
  • Action 2: Preventing and reducing marine litter from sea-based sources
  • Action 3: Monitoring and assessment of marine litter
  • Action 4: Activities supporting the implementation of the COBSEA RAP MALI

The COBSEA Secretariat coordinated closely with other Regional Seas programmes, the Global Partnership on Marine Litter (GPML) and the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities (GPA) to support effective action in the East Asian Seas region to achieve SDG target 14.1: to prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds and in particular from land-based activities.

COBSEA initiatives on marine litter

COBSEA is jointly implementing the regional marine litter project SEA circular with the United Nations Environment Programme Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, with support from the Swedish Government. The project aims to reduce adverse impact of land-based plastic leakage into the marine environment, by ensuring that less plastic is wasted at source and management of the plastic value chain is improved in South East Asia. Considering waste management systems in the region remain largely inadequate to process increasing amounts of plastic waste, the project focuses on the lifecycle stages of (i) Production of plastic products, (ii) Plastic use, and (iii) Collection / sorting / recycling, to ensure that less plastic is wasted and strategically prevent plastic litter entering the ocean. To achieve these objectives, project partners include national and local government agencies; businesses, producers, retailers, and associations in the packaging, consumer and institutional products industry. To promote inclusive whole-of-value-chain planning at the national and regional level, project activities will actively engage civil society, consumers, informal waste workers, and communities most vulnerable to the impacts of marine litter.

For more information on SEA circular, visit the project website at