Litter and microplastics

Marine litter is a growing problem. In addition to information, awareness and cleaning campaigns, the emphasis is also on prevention by tackling the source and closing the loop. International cooperation is necessary since the occurrence and distribution is not limited to national borders.

Zwerfvuil op de Noordzee Plastic soup, also in the North Sea

(Plastic) litter in the sea, also known as plastic soup, is an increasing problem that not only has negative consequences for the marine ecosystem but also has social, safety and economic consequences as well as possible consequences for health. Due to the international character of this problem, the Netherlands is actively working together with other countries in the North-East Atlantic area (in the context of OSPAR). The issue is also being tackled in other international forums such as the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the UNEP Global Partnership on Marine Litter (GPML). The topic is also on the agendas of the international River Commissions such as the International Meuse Commission (IMC) and the International Rhine Commission (IRC). The main sources of marine litter are shipping, the fishing industry, beach recreation and the  flow through rivers from sources on land.

Viewed globally, it is assumed that 80 percent of the litter in the sea is land-based. For the North Sea, this percentage is expected to be lower. Monitoring of litter on the Dutch beaches shows that 44 percent of the waste originates from offshore sources (shipping/fishery), 30 percent is land-based (mainly beach tourism) and 26 percent is unknown.
Three-quarters of the litter  is plastic, which includes both larger pieces of plastic as well as microplastics. Dealing with litter in catchment basins is an important starting point for reducing the amount of litter flowing into the sea.

Marine Strategy Framework Directive, the catalyst

The Netherlands tackles marine litter in a number of different contexts: locally, nationally, regionally and globally. An international approach is necessary because the distribution of litter in seas and oceans is not restricted to national borders.
At the moment, the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) is the main legal framework. The Government has stated in the Marine Strategy that its target for 2020 is to reduce litter on the coast (beach waste) and the impact on marine organisms (“plastic particles in the stomachs of Northern Fulmar”). The following Good Environmental Status objective is formulated in the Marine Strategy: “The characteristics and the amounts of marine litter should cause no damage to the coastal and marine environment”. The following two environmental targets were set for 2020:

  • There must be less visible litter on the coast
  • There must be a downward trend in the amount of litter found in marine organisms.

The policy approach has been fine-tuned by means of additional measures to tackle the problem. To reduce litter, the Netherlands is focusing on prevention – tackling the sources – communication and awareness and setting up product chains (amongst other things, by means of Green Deals, product requirements and waste policy). In addition, the Netherlands is taking mitigating measures (remediation by cleaning the beaches and the Fishing for Litter project).

Closing the loop

The effect of the Dutch effort is manifested in the Government-wide Programme for the Circular Economy. The objective serves the higher goal of achieving a transition to a sustainable economy in which production and consumption cycles are closed, or a transition “from waste to raw material” and “cradle to cradle”. This discourages the use of disposable consumer goods (plastic bags, plastic packaging materials) and stimulates sustainable consumption (‘non-disposable culture’) on the basis of the possible alternatives. Many measures will also have to be taken in other frameworks, such as requirements for packaging, eco-design, waste policy, etc. Companies in the Netherlands have signed a National Raw Materials Agreement in which they declare that they are using fewer primary raw materials. The raw materials agreement is worked out in detail in the transition agendas of the Government-wide Programme for the Circular Economy. In the transition agendas, specific development strategies are adopted, where synergy and coherence is sought with existing procedures in the framework of the climate and energy policy and the innovation policy.

Monitoring litter

Litter on land and in the water is monitored in different ways. On land through the nationwide monitoring of litter, offshore by means of beach litter, the amount of plastics in the stomachs of Northern Fulmar, and seabed litter, three indicators that are included in the monitoring programme of the Dutch Marine Strategy. The Government is also cooperating in various research studies in order to improve monitoring: a study into the knowledge agenda and monitoring method for microplastics, a study into developing a way of monitoring microplastics in freshwater, and a study into the possibilities of monitoring river litter.

Programme of Measures

New additional measures have been included in the MSFD Programme of Measures that the Government adopted in late 2015 as part of the second National Water Plan. A number of the new measures in the MSFD Programme of Measures to combat marine litter are included in so-called Green Deals (see below). The Ministry is also taking action to more effectively integrate the theme ‘marine litter’ in education materials and so reduce large-scale balloon launches and combat microbeads in cosmetics. In the catchment areas, various parties are working together on implementing cleaning campaigns in the rivers and on exchanging knowledge about litter. The Clean Meuse Cooperation Agreement is one example of this.

Green Deals

A number of the new measures in the MSFD Programme of Measures against marine litter are included in so-called Green Deals: the Green Deal Ship Generated Waste, the Green Deal Fishery for a Clean Sea and the Green Deal Clean Beaches. In the course of 2017, an initial evaluation will be conducted into the progress being made the Green Deals.


Microplastics are a separate category of plastic litter. Microplastics are extremely small pieces of plastic (with a diameter of less than 5 millimetres). Sources of microplastics include:

  • larger pieces of plastic in the sea that slowly decompose into smaller particles
  • plastic fibres that “break off” from clothing during washing
  • pieces of plastic that are added to products, such as cosmetics products, abrasive cleaners and polishing agents
  • plastic pellets that are used as a raw material for the plastics industry
  • plastic granules on artificial pitches
  • abrasion particles from car tyres and paint, amongst other things.

More and more is being learned about the effects of microplastics in the sea and in the food chain. Effects can be caused by the particles themselves or by chemical substances in the plastic. Marine animals ingest microplastics – for example, through their food. Yet a great deal is still unknown. Such as about sources and distribution routes of microplastics, the effect of measures and the influence of plastics and microplastics on biodiversity and on human health. That is why is research into microplastics is still necessary.

Cleaning and clearing up

Existing initiatives where clearing up litter also effectively contributes to awareness include Fishing for Litter, the Beach Cleanup Tour, and the Ocean Cleanup. Rijkswaterstaat is also actively looking for possibilities to remove litter from around hydraulic structures.

OSPAR’s Regional Action Plan Marine Litter

On 28 June 2014, OSPAR established the Regional Action Plan (RAP) Marine litter. The plan prescribes activities for collective measures and objectives. The Netherlands has a leading role in the development of a large number of OSPAR measures. These OSPAR actions will extend the range of national actions.

Documents and publications