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Marine Debris Laws


''On Friday, a great many people put on their clothes and left the water in disgust after a few minutes, as it was so full of vegetables and grease. One woman decided to leave after a dead dog had come in contact with her face.'' – Metropolitan Sewerage Commission report on Bradley Beach, New Jersey, 1906.

1952, The Cuyahoga River, Ohio, on fire

Photo Credit: NOAA Ocean Service Education

People have long believed that the ocean is as an endless dumping ground for human waste.

Indiscriminate dumping of garbage and sewage has gone on for centuries, but it wasn’t until the early 1900’s that lawmakers in the United States began to recognize the need to do something about water pollution.

In the 1970’s, laws such as the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships – which implemented the rules set out in the International Marine Pollution Convention – and the US Clean Water Act were passed, outlawing the discharge of oil and garbage into the water. These laws have done a great deal to help improve water quality.

International Laws on Marine Debris

The Marine Pollution Convention (known as MARPOL), Annex V, is an international treaty that regulates the disposal of garbage aboard ships.

According to MARPOL, garbage includes “all kinds of food, domestic and operational waste, excluding fresh fish, generated during the normal operation of the vessel and liable to be disposed of continuously or periodically.”

Annex V also prohibits the discharge of plastics anywhere in the sea.

Ships, according to the treaty, must keep a garbage logbook to track all disposal and incineration aboard the ship. National governments must also provide facilities at ports and terminals to collect garbage from ships.

Key U.S. Laws on Marine Debris

Over the years, the United States has passed many laws regarding water pollution and marine debris. Here is a timeline of key marine debris laws:


Federal Water Pollution Control Act. This act, also known as the Clean Water Act, set pollution discharge rules for US waters, established water quality criteria, and gave the EPA enforcement authority.

Coastal Zone Management Act. This law authorized NOAA to fund state programs to regulate pollution and protect environmental resources across the country.

Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act. This act gave the US Coast Guard and the EPA authority to regulate dumping in US ocean waters.


Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act. This act implements the provisions of MARPOL’s Annex V into US law, making it illegal to throw plastic into waters within 200 miles of the US coastline (which constitutes the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone). It also outlawed the dumping of garbage within three miles of shore.


Shore Protection Act. This law created regulations for waste transport vessels like trash barges. The act aimed to prevent accidental spills of dangerous waste into the water.


Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act. This law amended the Clean Water Act to require water testing and public notification of unsafe water contamination.

The Coral Reef Conservation Act. This act benefits coral reefs by authorizing NOAA to “provide assistance to States in removing abandoned fishing gear, marine debris, and abandoned vessels from coral reefs to conserve living marine resources."


Marine Debris Research, Prevention, and Reduction Act. This law funded NOAA’s Marine Debris Program to “identify, assess, reduce, and prevent marine debris and its effects on the marine environment.”