Beach Pollution: Causes and Effects (and Prevention!)

Marine pollution is a growing problem and concern. The majority of the pollution originates from human activities along coastlines and inland. Pollution of coastal environments can limit our ability to use beaches for economic and recreational purposes.

Pollution degrades and destroys coastal environments, and a polluted beach can also be a severe health risk and reduce local economic opportunities.

Continue reading to learn about beach pollution causes, effects, and prevention tips.

What is Beach Pollution?

Beach pollution is considered to be any harmful substance that contaminates coastal environments, including lakes and oceans. It ranges from plastic, trash, and litter to sewage, pesticides, and oil.

An estimated billion pounds of trash and other pollutants annually enter the ocean. Some of these end up on beaches as the waves and tides wash in them. The remaining debris sinks to the bottom of the sea and gets eaten by marine animals that mistake it for food or accumulate in ocean gyres.

Beach pollution is often a combination of chemicals and trash. It causes environmental damage and economic impacts and affects the health of all organisms.

Two Main Types of Beach Pollution

There are two main types of beach pollution: chemicals and trash.

Chemical Contamination

Chemical or nutrient pollution has serious health, environmental, and economic implications. This occurs when human activities, notably using fertilizers for agriculture, lead to the runoff of chemicals into waterways that ultimately flow to coastal environments.

An increase in chemicals, such as nitrogen and phosphorous, can also promote the growth of algal blooms that are toxic to wildlife and harmful to humans. These blooms harm human and environmental health and can harm local fishing and tourism industries.

Marine Trash

Trash encompasses all manufactured products, such as plastic, that end up in coastal environments. Eighty percent of trash is estimated to come from land sources, such as littering, storm winds, and poor waste management.

Plastic is particularly concerning because it can decompose upwards of 450 years.

Trash poses severe dangers to both humans and marine/terrestrial animals. Animals can quickly become tangled and injured in debris or mistake items such as food.

Reports indicate that if trash and plastic continue to find their way to coastal environments, by 2050, there will be more plastics than fish (by weight) in our oceans.

Major Causes of Beach Pollution

There are many causes of beach pollution, most originating from land and caused by humans. Here are some of the significant causes of beach pollution:

Littering and garbage

Littering and garbage can originate from many sources, but most commonly, it comes from human activities on land. Marine litter is not pleasing and can harm aquatic ecosystems, wildlife, and humans.

Any trash not recycled or properly disposed of can eventually reach coastal environments during heavy rain events through storm drains or streams and rivers.

Litter and garage can find their way to coastal environments, including:

  • People at the beach leaving behind their trash
  • Residential or commercial trash that is not properly disposed of
  • Fishermen losing or discarding fishing nets and lines

The Pacific Garbage Patch is one example of garbage collection in the ocean. This area has about 1.6 million square kilometers of floating plastics and garages swirling between California and Hawaii. Some have referred to patches such as islands of trash.

Overflows caused by rain or melting snow

Excessive rainfall or snowmelt can cause sewers to overflow if they exceed their capacity.

Discharge from combined sewer overflows (CSOs) and sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) contains a mixture of raw sewage, industrial wastewater, and stormwater. This can lead to beach closures, shellfish bed closures, and aesthetic problems.

There are three leading causes of overflows:

  • Stormwater runoff happens when rain or melted snow flows over paved land and cannot soak into the ground. It accumulates pollutants over land and eventually flows into coastal environments.
  • Combined sewer overflows (CSOs) can occur during periods of heavy rainfall when the wastewater volume exceeds the capacity of the sewer system or treatment facility. Raw, untreated sewage is dumped into lakes, rivers, and coastal waters. It is not uncommon for raw sewage to appear on beaches, particularly in the Great Lakes basin.
  • Sanitary sewage overflows (SSOs) collect and transport industrial and domestic wastewater to a treatment facility. However, these pipes have a relatively small capacity, so raw sewage can leak into nearby bodies of water during heavy rain.


Runoff is considered one of the biggest sources of pollution. It is non-point source pollution, meaning it comes from many sources. Rainwater and snowmelt flowed over land and paved surfaces (e.g., streets, parking lots, and building roof-tops), where they picked up pollutants.

Pollutants and substances can include:

  • Pet waste and animal manure
  • Fertilizers
  • Pesticides
  • Chemicals
  • Gasoline
  • Motor oil
  • Antifreeze
  • Soil/sediment

The polluted water flows from land into storm drains, rivers, lakes, streams, and the ocean.

Discharge from ships and boats

Recreational and shipping boats accidentally and intentionally discharge pollutants into the marine environment, affecting our beaches. Vessels also release oil and gas pollution into the water, primarily if their engines are improperly maintained.

Other discharges include trash, fishing gear, ballast water, bilgewater, and water from sinks and showers.


Sunscreen enters the marine environment in several ways. When applied, it settles on the sand, mainly if you use the spray and wash it off when swimming in the water. The chemicals in some sunscreens can harm marine life and threaten coral reefs.

The chemicals can decrease fish fertility and reproduction, lead to coral bleaching, accumulate in dolphin tissue, and be transferred to the young.

Chemicals in some sunscreens that can harm marine life include:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Benzonphenone-1
  • Benzonphenone-8
  • 4-Methylbenzylidene camphor
  • 3-Benzylidene camphor
  • Nano-Titanium dioxide
  • Nano-zinc oxide
  • Octinoxate
  • Octocrylene

Nutrient Pollution

Nitrogen and phosphorus are naturally occurring. However, an overabundance can have a devastating impact on the environment and human health. An increased concentration of chemicals in coastal environments promotes the growth of algal blooms, which are toxic to wildlife and harmful to humans.

Sources of nutrient pollution include:

  • Industrial agriculture practices
  • Commercial fertilizers and animal manure
  • Animal waste
  • Common household items
  • Dish soaps and dishwater detergents
  • Cleaning products

Too much nitrogen and phosphorus can cause algae to grow faster than usual. This growth is often called harmful algae blooms, which can take over large water sections. They are detrimental to aquatic ecosystems, block sunlight, and deplete oxygen.

Major Effects of Beach Pollution

Health Risks

Polluted beaches pose a severe health risk to humans. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that up to 3.5 million people get sick from contact with sewage while swimming.

Bacteria, fertilizers, animal and human waste, and trash can cause various illnesses for beachgoers. Swimmers can suffer from an upset stomach, neurological disorders, respiratory ailments, pinkeye, earaches, meningitis, and hepatitis.

There is often a lag between contact with contaminated waters and the onset of systems, which means most people don’t realize the beach made them sick. Polluted waters can also close the public beaches because of public health concerns.

Pollutants can also make their way back to humans indirectly. Tiny organisms ingest toxins, which are then eaten by larger predators, many of which are seafood that humans will eat. When toxins in contaminated animals get deposited in human tissue, it can lead to long-term health conditions.


Overuse of coastal environments can gradually degrade habitats. For example, walking on dunes can destroy the plants, causing sand to blow away, or waves from boats near shore can erode the beach.

Dunes are essential natural features because they protect inland areas from flooding and provide unique habitats for animals and plant species.

Habitat Degradation

Chemical or trash pollution can disturb and degrade marine and terrestrial habitats. For example, plastic pollution is affecting sea turtle reproduction rates because it alters the temperature of the sand where incubation occurs.

Harmful to Wildlife

It is estimated that beach pollution impacts over 800 wildlife species worldwide. Around 100,000 seabirds, sea turtles, seals, and other marine mammals die every year after ingesting plastic or getting entangled in garbage.

Animals often mistake garbage for food, which can cause them to choke, sustain an internal injury, or starve to death. Dolphins, fish, sharks, turtles, seabirds, and crabs are among the animals most vulnerable to plastic debris in the ocean.

Harmful algae blooms are detrimental to marine wildlife because they consume oxygen when they die and decompose. This often leads to dead zones or areas with little to no oxygen, which can completely kill off the feeding sources for large aquatic animals and destroy habitats.

Climate Change

The coastal environment is vulnerable to climate change and its related implications. Chemical and trash pollution are significant contributors to climate change.

Climate change has also led to increased extreme weather events, which can more frequently carry higher levels of pollutants to beaches.

The rise of sea levels is an enormous threat to some coastal environments. Areas along the coastline, such as beaches, wetlands, and estuarine habitats, risk becoming inundated or eroded.

Because of the rate of sea-level rise and the expected acceleration, many coastal environments will not be able to sustain themselves.

Beaches are at risk of inundation by sea-level rise or erosion, which would prevent them from protecting coastal communities and the habitats of sea animals, birds, and other species.

Economic Toll

A Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report found that beaches in the United States had experienced over 20,000 closing and advisory days in one year because of pollution and contamination.

 Over 80% of closings were related to near-shore bacteria levels that violated public health standards.

Closed beaches directly impact coastal communities and their local economy. The ocean and blue economy play a significant role in the U.S. economy.

Closed beaches due to pollution not only ruin the experience of local and visiting beachgoers but also impact local businesses and the tourism industry in the region. Many coastal communities depend on seasonal or year-round tourism.

Beach Pollution Prevention

At a high level, policy enforcement is a critical way to address pollution at a national level. The Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for enacting preventative and reparative programs and laws to protect beaches in the United States.

Policy Solutions Include:

  • Limits to agricultural pesticides
  • Promotion of organic farming and eco-friendly pesticide use
  • Reduction of industry and manufacturing waste
  • Increased funding for state water-quality monitoring
  • Programs to inform the public about potential health risks
  • Encourage green infrastructure
  • Porous pavements, green roofs and parks, and roadside planting absorb rainfall.

Several actions can also be taken personally to help reduce beach pollution. Beaches are public spaces, but it is our responsibility to do our part to help keep them clean.

Everyday Solutions Include:

  • Rain barrels
  • Eating organic goods
  • Cleaning with natural ingredients
  • Avoid using chemical pesticides
  • Minimize plastic use
  • Opt for reusable bottles and utensils
  • Organize a beach cleanup or cleanup in your local inland area
  • Properly dispose of plastics and trash

Beaches are beautiful recreational environments that can be damaged or destroyed by pollution. Coastal environments are a huge part of our human lives, and we must protect them at all costs.

Related content: Things You Can Do to Help Save the Ocean

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