The surge of research on marine litter is generating important information on its inputs, distribution and impacts, but data on the nature and origin of the litter remain scattered. Here, we harmonize worldwide litter-type inventories across seven major aquatic environments and find that a set of plastic items from take-out food and beverages largely dominates global litter, followed by those resulting from fishing activities. Compositional differences between environments point to a trend for litter to be trapped in nearshore areas so that land-sourced plastic is released to the open ocean, predominantly as small plastic fragments. The world differences in the composition of the nearshore litter sink reflected socioeconomic drivers, with a reduced relative weight of single-use items in high-income countries. Overall, this study helps inform urgently needed actions to manage the production, use and fate of the most polluting human-made items on our planet, but the challenge remains substantial.