January 2012 Issue
EPA: Fostering the Move Toward Trash-Free Seas
By Denise Keehner
Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
No one wants to visit the beach and find the water and shoreline littered with cigarette butts, soda cans, plastic bags and other trash. Not only is this litter unsightly, but it can lead to serious environmental, economic and human health impacts.
Fish and marine animals can become entangled in garbage or die from ingesting it, and communities can lose valuable tourism revenues if beaches are littered or closed because of trash. In addition to this, plastic litter can transfer toxic chemicals already present in the ocean into the food web and into our diets. EPA is working to prevent and control marine debris—any man-made, solid material that enters our waterways—through its marine debris prevention program.
Highlights of 2011
EPA’s marine debris prevention program promotes an approach focusing on understanding the different types, sources and conveyances of marine debris throughout a watershed, not just where it accumulates along the coastline or in the ocean. The program focuses on improper disposal of waste at sea and onshore, trash entering waterways through storm drains and when sewers overflow, promotion of proper trash disposal and recycling, and monitoring of marine debris trends in the environment.
Examples of recent successes include the development of total maximum daily loads (TMDLs), calculations of the maximum amount of a pollutant that a water body can receive and still safely meet water quality standards. Over the past decade, EPA approved TMDLs for trash for several watersheds in the Los Angeles, California, area and in September 2010 set limits for the Anacostia River watershed in the Washington, D.C., area. These impaired waters are now required to have watershed-based plans to eliminate trash from entering the watershed.
EPA also works closely with federal partners, nongovernment institutions and other countries to address the marine debris problem. Together with NOAA, EPA co-chairs the interagency marine debris coordinating committee, established under the Marine Debris Research, Prevention and Reduction Act.
EPA has also been a strong proponent of recent amendments to the International Maritime Organization’s International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships that would address the discharge of garbage from ships. These amendments will come into effect in January 2013.
The marine debris prevention program is part of an increased emphasis by EPA and other federal agencies on strengthening marine pollution programs to better protect, restore and conserve ocean resources. This focus is supported by President Barack Obama’s National Ocean Policy, established in July 2010, which provides EPA with the opportunity to increase its focus and use its programs to better address and advance protection and cleanup of ocean and near-coastal waters from impacts of trash and debris.
Monitoring and Research Funding
EPA also conducts monitoring and research efforts that address marine debris. From 2001 to 2006, the agency funded the national marine debris monitoring program, a statistically based study that used volunteer groups to monitor and remove marine debris from selected U.S. beaches every 28 days over a five-year period. EPA continues to use these results to reduce marine debris and identify new research activities. In addition, a review of existing research completed in 2011 concluded that plastic debris in the ocean is both a source and a sink for toxic chemicals and that plastic debris is acting to transfer toxic chemicals, such as PCBs, from the ocean into the food web. Because of the long lifetimes of plastic and toxic chemicals in the ocean, prevention strategies are vital to minimizing risks to human health and the environment.
Since marine debris can be prevented by controlling litter and trash at the source, building strong public awareness and fostering behavior change are key components of EPA’s marine debris prevention efforts. EPA’s marine debris prevention toolkit, available at http://go.usa.gov/5xQ, provides materials for educating the public about the problem of marine debris and its solutions. The toolkit includes video and audio public service announcements, print materials, educational tools and promotional items developed by local governments, state agencies and nonprofits.
Marine debris is a large, ongoing problem in our watersheds and oceans, and along our coasts. EPA and its partners play an important role in preventing marine debris, and the agency plans to increase its emphasis on marine debris prevention by using all the tools it has available.