Litter Facts

Litter Facts

We are increasingly aware of the damage caused by litter and pollution on our coasts and in our seas. It looks unsightly, but worse, it can be extremely harmful to marine wildlife. Plastic waste is picked up by the ocean’s filter feeders, mistakenly eaten by seabirds and fish, and can cause death through entanglement for many marine creatures. More than eight million tonnes of plastic goes into the oceans every year. With an estimated 300 million tonnes of it now littering our seas, it is estimated there will be more plastic than fish by 2050.


What our rubbish costs Highland Council

The annual cost of transporting and landfilling Highland refuse is approx. £11 million.

There are still significant costs to collect, transport and treat Highland Recyclate, however recycling cost at least 50% less than landfill and recycling helps the environment. Find out more.

What you can put in your bins.

Scottish rubbish

  • During 2016 – 2017 Scottish litter levels rose by 7%.
  • Over the past 15 years the amount of litter on beaches has doubled.

Litter filled North Sea

  • Every year 20,000 tonnes of rubbish is dumped into the North Sea.

Economic impact

Marine litter can also have a strong economic impact.

  • Fouling of fishing boat gear causes significant costs, estimated at up to £12,000 a year per vessel in repairs and time lost at sea.
  • Marine litter can cost harbours and marinas £10,000 – £15,000 a year to clean it up
  • Marine Scotland calculates that marine litter could cost the country at least £17 million per year.

Marine mammal deaths

  • Global estimates suggest that a million seabirds and more than 100,000 marine mammals are killed each year from eating plastic.
  • As more research is carried out into the effects of marine plastic we find that up to 100% of marine animals living in the deepest ocean trenches contain microplastics.

Plastic-filled stomachs

  • Around 58% of the fulmars that soar over our northern seas have plastics in their stomachs; which can lead to reduced feeding and starvation.
  • Evidence published in 2017 from group of scientists, that included researchers from the Environmental Research Institute in Thurso, found that 74% of the 34 seabird species they studied had ingested plastic.

This plastic results in : wounds (internal and external), blockage of oesophagus and damage to the digestive tract leading to internal infections, satiation, debilitation, drowning, starvation, impaired reproductive capacity, reduced predator avoidance, impaired feeding capacity and malnutrition, increased risk of diseases, altered hormone levels
(Ref: Marine Litter Issues, Impacts and Actions; Tavis Potts and Emily Hastings)

It is estimated that all seabirds could be affected by 2050.

Chemical impacts

A study demonstrated that the amount of plastic ingested by seabirds positively correlated with PCBs found in the seabirds’ fatty tissue (Ref: The effects of ingested plastic and other marine debris on seabirds, Ryan et al. 1988). ‘Transport and release of chemicals from plastics to the environment and to wildlife’, Teuten (2009) went a step further and demonstrated through mathematical models and a shearwater chick feeding experiment that PCBs transferred from contaminated plastic into the tissue of chicks, where PCB concentrations in preen gland oil increased non-significantly, taking 42 days for full clearance of PCB.

Shellfish pollution

Along the west coast of the UK, Murray and Cowie (2011) found that 83% of Norwegian
Lobsters (Nephrops norvegicus ) contained plastics. (ref: Harm caused by marine litter – EU technical review 2016)

Fish health

Odours from marine plastic debris induce food search behaviours in a forage fish

Matthew S. Savoca, Chris W. Tyson, Michael McGill, Christina J. Slager. Published 16 August 2017.DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2017.1000

Recent evidence suggests that the chemical signature of plastic debris may explain why certain species are predisposed to mistaking plastic for food. Wild-caught schools of northern anchovy (Engraulis mordax) were presented with odour solutions made of plastic debris and clean plastic. Anchovy schools responded to plastic debris odour with increased aggregation, responding to the plastic as they would to a natural food source. These behavioural responses were absent in clean plastic and control treatments.

The fish confuse plastic for an edible substance because microplastics in the oceans pick up a covering of biological material, such as algae, that mimics the smell of food. When plastic floats at sea its surface gets colonised by algae within days or weeks. Research has shown that this algae produces and emits  an algal based compound that certain marine animals use to find food. 

Numerous species of fish eaten by humans have been found to contain plastic, and the effect of eating these on human health is still unknown.