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 Resources: Water - General
December 17, 2013
Marine litter - An intractable environmental problem

Effects are serious, solutions elusive

Marine litter is an environmental problem of extraordinary dimensions, but the nations of the world are not implementing remedies that are remotely equal to the problem.

According to the European Commission (EC), each year approximately 10 million tons of litter end up on the world’s beaches and in the oceans and seas.  Plastics comprise most of this tonnage.  The EC notes that plastics comprise 80 percent of marine litter on some shores.  A similar predominance of plastic is reported from sampling at the sea surface and the seabed.

According to the U.S. EPA, the top 10 items in the 9 million pounds of trash collected during the 2011 International Coastal Cleanup are, from most to least, cigarettes and cigarette filters; caps and lids; plastic beverage bottles; plastic bags; food wrappers and containers; cups, plates, forks, knives, and spoons; glass beverage bottles; straws and stirrers; beverage cans; and paper bags.  On the high seas themselves, a significant amount of fishing gear, including massive plastic fishing nets, is discarded, resulting in destruction of marine life. 

Most plastics are extremely durable and, in some cases, can persist in water for hundreds of years.  Some plastics also deteriorate into microplastics that are consumed by marine life.  Ingestion can impair digestion, growth, and reproduction and cause internal injuries and death.  But before it degrades, marine debris inflicts a wide range of harm on whales, seals, turtles, and fish that become entangled in litter, suffering suffocation, strangulation, or drowning.  In extreme cases, debris can smother the seabed and snuff out organisms living in sediments. 

Fishing stocks are depleted by “ghost fisheries”—fish and shellfish that are ensnared in abandoned fishing gear but never landed.  The Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission has estimated that blue crab ghost fishery leads to a loss of up to 4 million to 10 million crabs a year in Louisiana alone. 

Floating marine debris is a navigational hazard that entangles propellers and clogs cooling water intake valves.  Repairing boats damaged by marine debris is time-consuming and expensive.

Marine litter can also be a means of transport for nonnative species invading ecosystems with disruptive consequences for both the ecosystems and the human communities that depend on them.  Litter is yet another stress added to oceans and sea life already being compromised by warming temperatures and acidification. 

Cleanup is costly

The EC says that information on the economic impact of marine litter is scarce.  But one report stated that United Kingdom municipalities spend approximately €18 million each year removing beach litter.  Costs to municipalities in the Netherlands and Belgium are about €10.4 million annually.  The major concern is ensuring that litter does not disrupt tourism.  This is also true in the United States.  For example, in an attempt to stop the migration of trash to the ocean, Los Angeles County spends $18 million annually on street sweeping, catch basin cleanouts, beach cleanup, and litter prevention and education. 

Origins on land

Debris can enter the oceans directly in the case of waste from fishing activities, shipping, fixed installations (e.g. oil rigs), or the sewage system.  But poor waste management practices occurring near rivers or seas are a more significant factor.  According to the EC, in most sea regions, up to 80 percent of the debris that ends up in the marine environment is transported there from land by rivers, drainage, or wind.  EPA’s National Marine Debris Monitoring Program (NMDMP) estimates that 49 percent of debris on U.S. beaches is from land-based sources, 18 percent is from ocean-based sources, and 33 percent is from sources that could be considered land- or ocean-based. 

Given that most marine litter originates on land, governments and environmental agencies believe remediation begins with better land-based waste management.  This is a challenge for governments since private citizens who are not subject to regulatory programs generate most of the litter that ends up in the marine environment.  For example, EPA’s NMDMP was conducted over a 5-year period, during which no change was found in the total amount of debris found on U.S. beaches. 

U.S. law

The following list shows that the U.S. Congress has taken some actions to address the problem of marine litter. 

  • The Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA, aka Ocean Dumping Act) generally prohibits transportation of material from the United States for the purpose of ocean dumping, transportation of material from anywhere for the purpose of ocean dumping by U.S. agencies or U.S.-flagged vessels, and dumping of material transported from outside the United States into the U.S. territorial sea.  A permit is required to deviate from these prohibitions.  The MPRSA authorizes provisions of the international London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (adopted in 1972; entered into force 1975).  The London Protocol, which took effect in 2006, revised the London Convention by prohibiting dumping of all wastes not included in a “reverse list.”  The U.S. Congress has yet to ratify the revision. 
  • The Shore Protection Act (SPA) is designed to minimize municipal and commercial trash, medical debris, and other harmful material from being deposited into coastal waters as a result of inadequate waste-handling procedures by vessels transporting waste.  The EPA and the U.S. Coast Guard develop regulations governing the loading, securing, offloading, and cleanup of such wastes from waste sources, reception facilities, and vessels. 
  • The total maximum daily load (TMDL) provisions of the Clean Water Act compel states to develop and implement watershed-based plans that eliminate the entry of trash into impaired waters.
  • The 2000 Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act authorizes the EPA to provide technical assistance to states and local governments for the assessment and monitoring of floatable materials.
  • The Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act (MPPRCA) requires that the EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) study the adverse effects of improper disposal of plastics on the environment, as well as methods to reduce or eliminate those effects.  The MPPRCA also requires the EPA, NOAA, and the Coast Guard to work together to assess the feasibility of using volunteer groups to monitor floatable debris on the nation's coastlines.
  • The Marine Debris Research, Prevention, and Reduction Act was passed to establish programs within the NOAA and the Coast Guard to identify, determine sources of, assess, reduce, and prevent marine debris and its adverse impacts on the marine environment and navigation safety.
  • The United States is also party to Annex V—Prevention of Pollution by Garbage from Ships—of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL).  The Annex specifies the distances from land and the manner in which trash may be disposed of.  The Annex bans the disposal into the sea of all forms of plastics.  Amendments to Annex V, effective July 2011, prohibit the discharge of all garbage into the sea, except under specified circumstances.

The Honolulu Strategy

The NOAA endorsed the 2011 Global Framework for Prevention and Management of Marine Debris (called the Honolulu Strategy).  This nonbinding framework is intended as a focal point for improved collaboration and coordination among nations concerned with marine debris. The strategy has three elements that concisely summarize the aspirations of governments in controlling marine litter.

  1. Reduce the amount and impact of land-based sources of debris introduced into the sea by:
    • Conducting education and outreach on marine debris impacts and the need for improved solid waste management;
    • Employing market-based instruments to support solid waste management and minimization;
    • Employing infrastructure and implementing best practices for improving stormwater management and reducing discharge of solid waste into waterways;
    • Enacting and/or strengthening legislation and policies to support solid waste minimization and management;
    • Improving the regulatory framework for stormwater, sewage systems, and debris in tributaries;
    • Building capacity to monitor and enforce compliance with regulations and permit conditions regarding litter, dumping, solid waste management, stormwater, and surface runoff; and
    • Conducting regular cleanups on coastal lands, in watersheds, and in waterways, especially in debris hot spots.
  2. Reduce the amount and impact of sea-based sources of marine debris, including solid waste; lost cargo; abandoned, lost, or otherwise discarded fishing gear (ALDFG); and abandoned vessels by:
    • Conducting ocean-user education and outreach on marine debris impacts and prevention;
    • Developing and strengthening implementation of waste minimization and proper waste storage at sea, and disposal at port reception facilities, to minimize ocean dumping;
    • Developing and strengthening implementation of industry best management practices to minimize abandonment of vessels and accidental loss of cargo, solid waste, and gear at sea;
    • Developing and promoting fishing gear modifications or alternative technologies to reduce ALDFG;
    • Developing and strengthening implementation of legislation and policies to prevent and manage marine debris from at-sea sources and implementing requirements of MARPOL Annex V and other relevant international instruments and agreements; and
    • Building capacity to monitor and enforce national and local legislation and compliance with MARPOL Annex V and other international instruments and agreements.
  3. Reduce amount and impact of accumulated marine debris on shorelines, in benthic habitats, and in pelagic waters by:
    • Conducting education and outreach on marine debris impacts and removal;
    • Developing and promoting use of technologies and methods to locate and remove marine debris accumulations;
    • Building capacity to comanage marine debris removal response;
    • Developing or strengthening implementation of incentives for removal of ALDFG and other large accumulations of marine debris at sea;
    • Establishing regional, national, and local mechanisms to facilitate removal of marine debris; and
    • Removing marine debris from shorelines, benthic habitats, and pelagic water.

No lack of agreement

The NOAA also voiced support for the Global Partnership on Marine Litter, which was formed in 2012 at the United Nations’ Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development.  The partnership promotes implementation of the Honolulu Strategy and has objectives similar to those in the strategy.  The Rio+20 partnership and the Honolulu Strategy plus MARPOL Annex V and many other principles, priorities, and collaborations were also recognized, affirmed, or welcomed at the April 2013 International Conference on Prevention and Management of Marine Litter in European Seas, in which the NOAA participated. 

Clearly, many levels of government worldwide are acutely aware of the harm posed by marine litter and have developed a great many approaches to address it.  The poor record in controlling the problem can be traced, in part, to a lack of implementation of existing laws and policies.  Consistent policing and enforcement of dumping on immense stretches of open seas is impossible.  And on land, the majority of litter that finds its way to shorelines is generated by the public, an activity that is hardly a priority among law enforcement.  Given these barriers, governments have no alternative but to continue to agree on goals and actions, educate those who litter, and hope the message produces results.

William C. Schillaci