Environment & Energy Report

The New Marine Litter Federal Strategy Sets Goals for Businesses

Nov. 24, 2020, 9:00 AM

In one year, an average of 8 million tons of marine plastic litter ended up in oceans across the world due to poor management of solid waste, insufficient infrastructure, littering, and dumping. This mismanaged waste degrades our ecosystems, affects the health of marine life, and threatens sectors within the economy that rely on the well-being of the marine environment, including fishing and tourism.

Further, waste that becomes marine litter often represents missed economic opportunities as many types of waste and scrap, including plastics, may be recycled into new products and re-enter commerce.

In October, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a major new initiative on addressing the global issue of marine litter. The strategy identifies the challenges of marine litter, highlights the federal government’s “four pillars” for addressing them, and identifies existing U.S. laws and federal programs dealing with marine litter.

This article presents an overview of the existing laws and new federal strategy on marine litter and implications for U.S. businesses.

Existing U.S. Laws Regulating Marine Litter

With respect to existing laws, the U.S. establishes minimum national criteria for solid waste facilities through the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which ensures that waste is managed in an environmentally sound manner. To prevent waste from entering the ocean, stormwater and wastewater management systems capture and dispose of solid waste.

The Clean Water Act requires the development of standards for waters impaired by pollutants, including solid waste. The Marine Debris Act, which established the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program, is the primary authority for the U.S. to prevent and respond to marine debris.

Its purpose is to “identify, determine sources of, assess, prevent, reduce, and remove marine debris and address the adverse impacts of marine debris on the economy of the United States, marine environment, and navigation safety.” The program covers the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as well as the Great Lakes.

Components of the New Federal Strategy

The marine litter initiative contains various components. First, it identifies marine litter. The main land-based sources of marine litter are littering, dumping, and poor waste management practices. Sea-based litter sources include cargo, solid waste, and fishing gear from shipping vessels, ferries, and other industry infrastructure.

Marine litter is defined in the U.S. Code as “any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and is directly or indirectly, intentionally or not, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment.” This includes human-created waste discharged from land or sea. The most common materials in marine litter are plastics, glass, metal, paper, cloth, rubber, and wood.

The initiative highlights the federal government’s desire to find economic opportunities while tackling the marine waste problem.

Those opportunities include:

  • Building capacity for better waste and litter management systems, including improved infrastructure and better government coordination, public education and engagement;
  • incentivizing the global recycling market in partnership with the private sector;
  • promoting research and development for innovative solutions and technology; and
  • promoting litter capture systems in seas, rivers and inland waters.

Businesses Should Prepare for Increased Regulation

This initiative has the potential to increase the regulatory burden on businesses that may generate and/or dispose of litter that could find its way into marine waters. Any business potentially affected by these changes, including the industries and practices identified above, should closely monitor the development of this initiative.

There are several strategies that businesses should begin to develop in order to prepare. With respect to land-based sources of marine litter, businesses should provide skill development and training to their employees, provide other critical resources to develop their infrastructure internally, and lobby government entities to fund such programs. These programs would include improving port reception facilities to manage ship waste, and developing environmentally friendly solid waste management protocols, including for managing recyclable materials.

Additionally, businesses should work closely with the waste management private sector to re-engage on recycling, including waste minimization and proper storage, disposal, and recycling of fishing gear and other marine litter.

They should encourage the purchase and use of eco-friendly products; and provide additional resources to financially sustain marine litter management.

Businesses also should promote development of innovative approaches and technology to deal with marine litter. This includes engaging with academia and other institutions conducting research in this sector; investing in environmentally sound technology such as waste minimization, recycling, and renewable energy; and taking a multi-stakeholder approach to international marine litter monitoring and control.

Businesses should also promote and enhance their marine litter removal practices, which would include removing derelict fishing gear, increasing efforts to remove litter in coastal conservation areas, and developing watershed cleanup programs.

With respect to sea-based sources, businesses should build capacity for waste management and marine litter systems. This includes development of best management practices to minimize waste generated from abandoned vessels and loss of cargo and waste at sea, and lobbying for laws and treaties to address sea-based marine litter.

Furthermore, businesses should work together with the public and private sectors to develop a robust recycling market for marine products.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owner.

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Ralph A. DeMeo is a shareholder at Baker Donelson who focuses his practice on environmental and land use law, with emphasis in regulation and litigation.

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