The Ocean Is Awash with Plastic: How Can the Maritime Industry Help?

Joan M. Bondareff and Jeanne M. Grasso

The eight-part series, Blue Planet II, narrated by Sir David Attenborough last year on BBC, seems to have awoken the public’s attention to the crisis of our oceans being littered with vast amounts of plastic, fishing gear, and other types of marine debris. As a result, cities, states, and nations around the world, as well as major cruise lines, are proactively looking at ways to reduce plastic to keep it from entering the sea.

The Extent of the Problem

Most plastic or marine debris comes from land-based sources, including from rivers that enter the sea, especially from coun­tries with less responsible garbage practices. For example, according to the BBC, most garbage in the ocean comes from 15 nations around the Pacific Rim, including China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Thailand.

According to a study published in Nature magazine and also reported in USA Today in March 2018, the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” a collection of floating plastic trash halfway between Hawaii and California, has grown to more than 600,000 square miles—an area twice the size of Texas. The trash is said to come from the Pacific Rim as well as North and South America. Since the garbage patch is in international waters, no nation has stepped up to clean it up. (Id.)

A large amount of lost or discarded fishing gear is also found in the ocean depths. Some estimates from the World Animal Protection organization are that as much as 700,000 tons of lost or abandoned fishing gear are left in the ocean every year; this is often called “ghost gear” because it entangles fish and marine mammals simply by floating unattended in the ocean. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”), which manages a modestly funded marine debris program in the United States, believes that both fish and wild­life are harmed by the plastic pollution because these animals can ingest the plastic and not eat their regular sources of nutri­tion, the plastic can do damage to their digestive systems, and they also can become fouled in plastic debris.

The Shipping Industry Must Do Its Part in Reducing Marine Debris

The shipping industry is endeavoring to do its part, largely because it is required to handle garbage responsibly as a result of international conventions and national laws. Working through the International Maritime Organization (“IMO”), mar­itime nations have adopted several international conventions to address marine pollution. These include the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention, the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter 1972 (London Convention), the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (“MARPOL”), including its six annexes.

Annex V of MARPOL specifically addresses garbage and was significantly amended at the IMO to strengthen its provisions over the last five years. On January 1, 2013, the approach to garbage management changed from generally allowing the disposal of garbage unless specifically prohibited or limited, to imposing a general prohibition on the discharge of garbage unless expressly provided for under Annex V’s regulations. These regulations allow the limited discharge of only four cat­egories: food waste, cargo residues, certain operational wastes not harmful to the marine environment, and carcasses of ani­mals carried as cargo. Combined with the general prohibition on the discharge of garbage outside these limited categories, the regulations greatly reduced the amount of garbage that vessels will be able to dispose of at sea.

Additional amendments to MARPOL Annex V entered into force on March 1, 2018, that also strengthened Annex V by chang­ing the criteria for determining whether cargo residues are harmful to the marine environment and revising the Garbage Record Book format to include a new garbage category for e-waste. Annex V also establishes Special Areas (e.g., the Wider Caribbean Region), within which more stringent discharge requirements apply for the prevention of pollution by garbage. (Click here for further details on MARPOL Annex V, as noted by the IMO.)

The cruise lines are also doing their part to reduce the amount of plastic used shipboard that therefore could inadvertently enter the sea. The Cruise Lines International Association (“CLIA”) adopted a comprehensive waste management policy that it expects its member lines to follow. According to CLIA’s website, its “[m]embers have agreed on the need to incorporate international, national and local environ­mental performance standards into their individual [Safety Management Systems].” In addition, CLIA’s members also take “great measures to manage garbage and continuously strive to implement new and more effective waste minimization pro­cesses and procedures.”

Building on CLIA’s policies, and possibly as a result of the pub­lic’s visceral reaction to the scenes portrayed in Blue Planet II, earlier this year, major cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean, Carnival Cruise Line, and P&O Cruises, have agreed to elimi­nate single-use plastics. (See Royal Caribbean Pledges to Cut Back on Plastics, Maritime Executive, Feb. 2018.) Carnival Cruise Line, for example, has “stopped placing plastic straws in glasses when drinks are ordered in an effort to be more envi­ronmentally friendly.” P&O Cruises and Cunard (also under the Carnival Corporation umbrella) pledged to abolish all single-use plastics—including straws, water bottles, and food packaging—from its ships by 2022.

European nations, through the European Commission, as well as U.S. states and cities, are also playing their part in reducing the use of plastic. The European Commission is planning on proposing a ban on single-use plastic. Commission officials indi­cate the draft directive will include the following:

  • A ban on the private use of disposable plastic products, such as straws, plastic plates, plastic utensils, plastic coffee stirrers, cotton swabs with plastic stems, and plastic balloon holders.
  • For every kilogram of plastic waste that wasn’t recycled, European states would be required to pay a certain amount to the EU budget.
  • Each member state will be encouraged to use a deposit system or other measure in order to collect 90 percent of plastic bottles used in their country by 2025.
  • A recommendation that the use of plastic cups and packaging for fast food be curbed.
  • A recommendation for an increase in consumer information about the dangers of plastic packaging.

The draft directive must then be negotiated with the EU’s 28 member states, as well as the European Parliament, before it can go into effect. (See EU Commission Plans Ban on Plastic Waste, Deutsche Welle.)

In the United States, the city of San Francisco is currently con­sidering a ban on single-use plastic. And, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has also proposed a new ban on single-use plastic bags that would go into effect in 2019.

U.S. Congress Acts to Save Our Seas

The U.S. Congress is playing its part in attacking the problem of marine debris. Last year, during the first session of the 115th Congress, the Senate, by unanimous consent, passed the Save Our Seas Act (S. 756). Sponsored by a coalition of bipartisan senators who belong to the Senate Oceans Caucus, includ­ing the lead sponsors, Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (R-RI), S. 756 would reauthorize the marine debris program of NOAA; require NOAA to work with other federal agencies to develop outreach and education strategies on sources of marine debris; authorize the administrator of NOAA to make a severe marine debris event determination as well as make funds available to affected states; and promote international action to reduce marine debris. (H. Rept. 115-135.) A compan­ion bill in the House of Representatives, H.R. 2748, sponsored by Congressman Don Young (R-AK), also with bipartisan sup­port, is pending consideration in two House Committees, Transportation and Infrastructure and Natural Resources. If the House passes its bill this year, or adopts the Senate bill, the final bill will be sent to President Trump for his signature. The unanimous consent vote in the Senate almost certainly makes this bill veto-proof if passed by the House of Representatives.


The United States, Congress, European nations, IMO, and the maritime industry—in particular, cruise lines—are doing their part to try and clean up the oceans through mandatory and voluntary efforts. Other countries must also step up to help reduce land-based pollution, especially plastic pollution, that enters the ocean by promoting programs for recycling, conservation, using less plastic, and supporting innovative research.­

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