Learn the causes and effects of ocean pollution and what you can do to help.


Our oceans, which account for 70 percent of the surface of our planet, are incredibly polluted. Oceans play a pivotal role in the health and well-being of our world, so we need to understand the causes of ocean pollution and find ways to reduce it.

What are the leading causes of ocean pollution?

In most cases, pollution in the ocean is caused by humans, thus increasing our responsibility to be a part of the solution. Some of the significant causes of ocean or marine pollution include the following1:

  • Runoff: Runoff occurs when rain or snow carries pollutants from the ground to the ocean. For example, after a heavy rainstorm, oil left by vehicles washed from the streets unintentionally ‘runoff’ into our storm drains and into the ocean. With runoff coming from various locations and sources, it’s a significant cause of pollution. As a community, we need to reduce the usage of toxic pollutants to lessen the environmental impact of runoff. For example, rather than spraying weeds with harsh chemicals, using a natural mix of household products, like vinegar, could help.
  • Oil spills: Crude oil spills are happening too often. A significant contributor of releasing harmful oil into our oceans are the ships that transport goods from country to country. When crude oil infects the sea, it’s challenging to clean up. It can remain in the ocean for years, affecting wildlife and the ecosystem as a whole.
  • Waste: The effect of litter and unkept trash is a serious growing problem. Litter is considered atmospheric pollution when waste and debris are carried by wind to the ocean. Objects such as plastic bags can end up in the water, and unfortunately, they don’t decompose. You can help reduce this type of pollution by gathering trash you see lying around and disposing of it properly.
  • Fossil fuels: Fossil fuels are burned to create energy, but burning fossil fuels causes the release of carbon dioxide, which is one of the most destructive contributors to climate change. Another downside to burning fossil fuels is the residual ash released into the atmosphere. When the ash particles are released, they mix with vapor in clouds, causing rainwater to be more acidic.

What are the different types of ocean pollution?

There are several types of ocean pollution that occur in many different ways. At the end of the day, pollution is pollution. It’s harmful, and regardless of how it happens, we need to reduce it. However, we must identify where it’s coming from to reduce pollution. Different types of pollution in the ocean include2:

  • Garbage: Plastic debris and waste is suffocating our sea friends. Whether you are near the beach or not, be aware of trash and plastic bottles that are misplaced, as they may end up in the ocean one way or another.
  • Sunscreen: Sunscreen and other topicals cause significant pollution. When you swim in the ocean with sunscreen, chemicals like insect repellants wash off into the water. While this may be unintentional, it ultimately does affect the sea, so it is considered pollution.
  • Sewage: Septic systems occasionally fail, which can drain into the ocean if not dealt with accordingly. Several reasons why a septic system may fail, including aging infrastructure, overloaded methods, and poor maintenance, can cause pollution over time.
  • Runoff: Runoff is one of the major sources of pollution. Oils found on the ground can make their way to the ocean via sewer and drain systems. The impact that runoff has on the ocean is vastly important because the chemical composition of ocean water is significant.
  • Industrial waste: Dangerous toxins are often dumped into the water due to its ease of disposal, but the water and sea life become infected. This can affect the food that humans eat, such as fish.
  • Carbon dioxide: When fossil fuels are burned, carbon dioxide is produced. Carbon dioxide can dissolve in the water, altering the valuable acidity of the ocean.
  • Noise: Ocean species rely on their sense of hearing and vibration, and loud noises from passing ships, drilling and recreational motorsport machinery may affect their communication ability. When ocean life is harmed, the entire ecosystem is in jeopardy.

What pollutes the ocean most?

About 80 percent of marine pollution comes from land. As we mentioned earlier, pollutants are often carried from land to the ocean, and there are several ways that pollution occurs.

Despite their fundamental disconnection, small sources such as cars, trucks, boats and farms contribute to pollution in the ocean. Millions of vehicles drop tiny bits of oil onto the ground every day. Eventually, the oil may make its way into our beloved oceans, causing pollution. Other sources of pollution are air pollution or dirt pollution. Air pollution can settle into waterways and oceans, while dirt or top soils can run off into rivers. These pollutants can be devastating for both humans and marine wildlife habitats.

Pollution coming from land is causing costly and harmful effects. While the United States and similar countries invest millions of dollars annually to restore damaged areas, we need to do more. Agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which works with the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Agriculture and other state and federal agencies, are constantly working to identify causes and solutions for land-caused pollution3.

What are the long-term effects of ocean pollution?

While we may see some effects in the short term, most will be evident in the long term. It may seem fine now, but it’s only getting worse by the day. Some long term effects of ocean pollution include:

  • Marine animals harmed: Pollution such as oil spills and debris can cause irreversible damage to marine life.
  • Depletion of oxygen in seawater: Excess debris is entering the ocean. To degrade trash, oxygen is consumed. As a result, there are lower oxygen levels in the sea. Penguins, dolphins, whales and other sea animals are experiencing death and other harmful effects of oxygen depletion.
  • Human life at risk: As organisms like fish ingest toxins from pollution, they can make their way back to humans when we eat seafood. As a result, we may see an increase in long-term health conditions such as cancer and birth defects.

How does ocean pollution affect marine life?

As billions of pounds of trash and debris enter the ocean each year, more marine life is impacted. Marine life is critical to the entire planet, not just the sea. Marine life creates a majority of the globe’s oxygen. When ecosystems are interrupted, carbon dioxide is released into the environment. As a result, global warming is accelerated.

Marine life is extremely sensitive to changes in its environment as it helps regulate climates and weather systems. While regulations are in place, chemical pollution is causing marine life to suffer. Plastic pollution is causing marine life to die as well. Plastic bags and other plastics dissolve into microplastics which can choke or kill marine life species4.

How does ocean pollution affect humans?

Every day, our oceans are polluted with toxic chemicals, contaminating our food chain. If humans are exposed to toxic chemicals, they may experience health problems. Humans may experience hormonal issues or damage to the nervous system, to name a few5.

What will happen if ocean pollution continues?

Just as we rely on the ocean for many things, it depends on us. If we continue to pollute the sea, serious problems will arise. Research has surfaced over the last several decades, raising awareness of ocean pollution's potentially irreversible damage at hand. The more research published, the more devastating it all seems. While some may ignore research, you must find ways to make those around you care.

To reduce ocean pollution, it will take a collective effort. If we fail to reduce it, it will impact our environment, economy and health6.

How can we reduce ocean pollution?

As a contributing member of society, we should find ways to reduce ocean pollution and protect the environment by changing some of our daily habits.

You can help the ocean by not driving vehicles when unnecessary. If you drive less frequently, there will be less runoff, which means less pollution. In addition, avoid littering and recycle plastic bottles and other recyclable items properly. If you see litter or trash lying on the ground, collect it for safe disposal. You may not have put it there, but you can pick it up. Additional ways to reduce ocean pollution include using reusable bags, refusing plastic products when possible, and reducing vehicle pollution.

Ocean pollution is an immense challenge to face. If we all take steps in the right direction to avoid polluting, we can make a significant difference.

Cutting your carbon emissions is a great place to start. Carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels accumulates in the atmosphere causing global warming and affecting ocean temperatures.

Switching your home’s energy supply to Inspire is a great first step in helping the planet and it doesn’t require much planning, money or time.

Start now – the ocean will thank you.


  1. texasdisposal.com/blog/ocean-pollution-causes-effects-and-prevention 

  2. springpowerandgas.us/how-do-we-pollute-9-types-of-ocean-pollution 

  3. oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/pollution.html 

  4. sentientmedia.org/marine-life 

  5. planetaid.org/blog/how-ocean-pollution-affects-humans 

  6. citizensustainable.com/ocean-pollution