Trash-Free Waters

Statutes and Regulations Affecting Marine Debris

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There are a number of statutory and regulatory tools at the federal, state, and municipal levels that can limit the amount of trash that gets into aquatic ecosystems. EPA utilizes the authorities and tools in the Clean Water Act (CWA), the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA, often known as Superfund), the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and the Pollution Prevention Act (PPA) to tackle the problem of mismanaged waste, which can become marine debris.

Clean Water Act (CWA)

Under the Clean Water Act, Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permits can be written to set standards to limit the amount of trash released from stormwater outfalls into municipal rivers and streams. In addition, a small number of municipal governments have set Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) limits for trash entering water bodies, to comply with state and regional water quality standards. The Clean Water Act does not mandate the use of these regulatory mechanisms for trash, but they are tools that localities may use together with other non-regulatory measures to reduce trash entering local waters.

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Superfund (CERCLA)

EPA’s Pacific Southwest Regional Office (Region 9) is working to remove the threats to human health and the environment posed by marine debris, including abandoned and derelict vessels, at several sites on the West Coast. Because marine debris typically harbors hazardous substances and/or oil, EPA used existing federal pollution response authorities and funding to assess and mitigate these risks, including CERCLA, the Clean Water Act (CWA) as amended by the Oil Pollution Act (OPA), and their implementing regulations, found at the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan (the NCP).

The toxicity risk from ingesting microplastics and Persistent Organic Pollutants that cling to them, or from consuming prey that has consumed microplastics, requires further study. EPA believes it may be a contributing stressor to the sensitive species in some of the worlds’ most valuable ocean and coral ecosystems. EPA is taking action under CERCLA to assess and mitigate this threat to the environment and human health.

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Pollution Prevention Act (PPA) and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA)

The Pollution Prevention Act's (PPA) authorities and tools support EPA's focus on source reduction (particularly reducing the use of single-use disposable packaging), reuse and recovery. EPA's Trash-Free Waters (TFW) program initiated a multi-stakeholder project in 2013 to develop public-private partnerships to greatly increase the recovery and beneficial reuse of packaging waste. Among the projects ideas currently under consideration include the development of more recyclable packaging materials (particularly for plastic materials), which would help create markets for products created from recycled packaging. The TFW program is inherently collaborative, forging relationships among all relevant and interested programs (federal, state, local, public & private sector, businesses, NGOs, etc.).

Since 2013, the Trash-Free Waters program has embarked on a series of regional initiatives to help states, cities, and other stakeholders learn how to apply the wide range of regulatory and non-regulatory tools to keep trash out of water. The program has initiated a planning process in the Mid-Atlantic region, building on the successful regional strategy developed by EPA in California.

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