Trace elements (TEs) frequently contaminate coastal marine sediments with many included in priority chemical lists or control legislation. These, improved waste treatment and increased recycling have fostered the belief that TE pollution is declining. Nevertheless, there is a paucity of long-term robust datasets to support this confidence. By mining UK datasets (100s of sites, 31 years), we assess sediment concentrations of arsenic (As), cadmium (Cd), chromium (Cr), copper (Cu), iron (Fe), mercury (Hg), nickel (Ni), lead (Pb) and zinc (Zn) and use indices (PI [Pollution], TEPI [Trace Element Pollution] and Igeo [Geoaccumulation]) to assess TE pollution evolution. PI and TEPI show reductions of overall TE pollution in the 1980s then incremental improvements followed by a distinct increase (2010–13). Zn, As and Pb Igeo scores show low pollution, whilst Cd and Hg are moderate, but with all remaining temporally stable. Igeo scores are low for Ni, Fe and Cr, but increasing for Ni and Fe. A moderate pollution Igeo score for Cu has also steadily increased since the mid-1990s. Increasing site trends are not universal and, conversely, minimal temporal change masks some site-specific increases and decreases. To capture this variability we strongly advocate embedding sufficient sentinel sites within observation networks. Decreasing sediment pollution levels (e.g. Pb and Hg) have been achieved, but stabilizing Igeo and recently increasing TEPI and PI scores require continued global vigilance. Increasing Ni and Fe Igeo scores necessitate source identification, but this is a priority for Cu. Local, regional and world analyses indicate substantial ‘hidden’ inputs from anti-fouling paints (Cu, Zn), ship scrubbers (Cu, Zn, Ni) and sacrificial anodes (Zn) that are also predicted to increase markedly. Accurate TE input assessments and targeted legislation are, therefore, urgently required, especially in the context of rapid blue economic growth (e.g. shipping).