A significant amount of plastic pollution from our ocean ends up washed up along our coasts, mostly towards the back of the beach where it becomes trapped in vegetation.
plastic rubbish on beach

Where does plastic pollution from our oceans go? It gets pushed onto the beach and trapped at the back in the vegetation.

There are trillions of pieces of plastic in and on our oceans and beaches. Yes trillions.

We know it maims and kills marine life and is a navigation hazard. It also impacts our health. But the estimates of plastic waste entering the ocean each year are 100 times greater than the total amount of plastic floating on the surface. So, where does all the plastic pollution go?

If you go down to the beach today, you’re sure of a big surprise

It’s certainly no (teddy bear’s) picnic when a visit to the beach leaves you wading through plastic to find a place to roll out your towel. A significant amount of plastic pollution from the ocean ends up stuck along our beaches.

Mostly the plastic becomes trapped in vegetation toward the back of the beach. And it doesn’t discriminate, big or small, it stays trapped there. But the further back from the beach, the more there is and the bigger the pieces of rubbish.

Map of Australia highlighting data collection points for marine debris

Dirty work. We recorded marine debris every 100 kms around the coast of Australia.

Mapping rubbish along the coast of Australia

Data between 2011 and 2016 reveals how much and where trash ends up every 100 kilometres around the coastline of Australia. Our team recorded a mix of litter and marine debris making its way from the ocean to our shores where it gets stuck. We didn’t just calculate how much marine debris there was – we also wanted to know how it got there.

Overview of sampling setting. Light blue arrows indicate the inward transport of debris due to Stokes drift and onshore wind

Waves and wind influence where plastic pollution ends up on our beaches.

Big winds and crashing waves

Onshore wind and waves influence where our plastic pollution on the beach ends up . Waves have much more influence washing the litter toward the back of the beach.

Most of the litter in our oceans and on our coastlines started in someone’s hand. So it is no surprise the more dense the regional population, the more plastic pollution we find in the area.

Plastic pollution solutions

Our research was conducted in partnership with Utrecht University. It suggests most plastic makes its way from urban areas into the ocean. It is then transported back onshore through wind and waves and pushed onto land where it stays.

With marine pollution being a major threat to our environment, this research deepens our understanding of its journey from urban to coastal areas. This data helps us know how – and where – we need to make changes to improve waste management. We hope it also brings attention to the plastic pollution issue.

Hopefully the result is less plastic pollution on our beaches. You can be part of the solution – always put all of your rubbish in the bin! And check out our tips for reducing your impact.


  1. Is it possible for you to promulgate or for the public to view the 2011 to 2016 data you collected every 100 kms around the Australian coast and does the data identify the errant types of plastic materials found?

    1. Hi Mike, thanks for your question.

      For this new research, of the rubbish found, 56% was plastic, followed by glass (17%) and foam (10%).

      Here is a link to a paper that has more details on marine debris recorded around Australia. There are a couple of maps in this paper that might be helpful: https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/fee.1447

      Kind regards,
      Team CSIRO

  2. The 10c container scheme in SA/NT and now other states is a significant contributor to lower amounts of rubbish. As a former SA resident I can not understand why it has taken 15 years to start this in WA. I look forward to a huge reduction of discarded drink containers along our foot paths and roads.

  3. I notice there is no mention of our River & Creek Systems, however I would have to assume you know that a major part of our plastics come from rivers & tributaries, where, as you say, ends up in our oceans. I personally volunteer to oversee a group of dedicated folk who clean up the plastics & glass bottles, plastic bags & on & on it goes, from our .local river systems. My monthly report to our Board clearly shows the rubbish we retrieve weekly, for Maroochy Water Watch, under ECOllaboration Pty Ltd, a not for profit organization here on the Sunshine Coast. Well done CSIRO in yet again bringing this to our attention. Any volunteers out there ???

  4. Good read….global challenge, list of few solutions and their potential impact

  5. I’ve just come back From a weekend in Adelaide & immediately notice how clean it was with multiple bins every where with clear understanding what rubbish goes where. Think all the other states could learn a lot.

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