Any beach in the world can tell you a devastating story, showing just how much of an effect humankind has had on the world and the environment. Strewn with plastic bottles, light bulbs, flip-flops, scraps of fishing net and timber, the scene is the same because of the nomadic trash.

The National Academy of Sciences in the U.S. estimated more than two decades ago that about 6.4 million tons of litter enter the world's oceans each year, but those are conservative numbers that are difficult to track, specifically because the trash constantly moves and enters the marine environment by many different pathways.

The majority is from land-based sources, but some is sewage-related debris washed down rivers into the sea. Some comes from careless beach visitors who leave their litter lying on the sand. Shipping also contributes to the littering of the oceans — this includes waste from commercial vessels that is deliberately dumped or accidentally lost overboard. Torn fishing nets are a major problem, too.

Finding a solution to the causes and impacts of marine litter is now widely recognized a major environmental challenge. And one of the key elements required to address the issue is encouraging people of all ages to move away from the current throwaway culture.

New research at the University of Plymouth shows that designing systematic and innovative education tools for teachers and students can make a "significant and positive" contribution to their understanding of the problem and their willingness to do something about it.

The study, published in Marine Policy, was a collaboration with the Mediterranean Information Office for Environment, Culture and Sustainable Development in Greece and the Coastal and Marine Union in The Netherlands. It marks the first quantitative assessment of European students' and educators' attitudes to marine litter before and after participating in an online educational project designed to raise awareness and inspire action in the younger generation.

For the study, 120 educators from 18 countries across Europe enrolled in an online training course about marine litter, asking participants to complete assessments on how the training changed their attitudes about the problem. The results indicated that the educators who participated in the training would like to further implement similar materials into their teaching to raise awareness of the problem.

"It is clear that the education sector represents an important agent of social change in society," Dr. Sabine Pahl, associate professor in psychology at the University of Plymouth, said. "This study shows that working with educators and school students has much potential to facilitate greater public understanding of complex environmental issues and to make them part of the solutions. It has important implications for marine policy, and demonstrates that, beyond providing mere knowledge and facts, employing creative tools and techniques can enable action."

Additionally, researchers invited 341 students aged 7 to 18 from 12 European countries to take part in a video competition through which they were encouraged to make a two-minute video on the problem's potential sources, impacts and solutions. After participating, the students said they were more concerned about the problem and perceived greater negative impacts and causes of ocean pollution, and they said they would take greater personal responsibility in trying to reduce wasteful behaviors.

This is important because the top 10 pollutants include:

  • Cigarettes/cigarette filters
  • Bags (plastic)
  • Food wrappers/containers
  • Caps/lids
  • Beverage bottles (plastic)
  • Cups, plates, forks, knives, spoons (plastic)
  • Beverage bottles (glass)
  • Beverage cans
  • Straws, stirrers (plastic)
  • Bags (paper)

The time for the ocean to break down pollutants like these can be astonishingly long. For example, fishing line can take as long as 600 years to disappear.

The main impacts of ocean pollution are somewhat known, but include:

  • Risks to human health
  • Rising costs of clearing stranded debris from beaches, harbors and stretches of sea
  • Deterrent effect on tourists, especially if sections of coastline are notoriously polluted
  • Damage to ships, such as dented hulls and broken anchors and propellers
  • Fishery losses, such as torn nets, polluted traps and contaminated catches

The study seems to suggest that education and behavior changes are more important now than simply trying to legislate the issue. International agreements to reduce littler really lack any teeth, and are producing little result.

Annex V of the MARPOL Convention is being revised for more impact. Some also have high hopes for the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) the European Union's tool to protect the marine environment and achieve good environmental status of the EU's marine waters by 2020 but that might be nothing more than wishful thinking.

"While recognizing the problem is one thing, increasing knowledge and changing behaviors are a far greater challenge," Professor Richard Thompson OBE, head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University and one of the study's authors, said. "This research demonstrates educators can play a lead role in that, and it is essential to educate young people now so that they and future generations can live in a world without the threat of plastic pollution."