U.S. Congress Prohibits Marine Plastics Dumping

In an effort to stem pollution of the oceans, the U.S. Congress passed legislation that prohibited the dumping of plastics into the sea and required shoreside reception facilities for plastics.

Summary of Event

By the mid-1980’s, the world’s oceans had become a dumping ground for all types of garbage and pollution. Beaches, estuaries, and marshes were becoming clogged with garbage rising with the tide. Animals large and small were killed year after year by garbage dumped into the sea. Much of this garbage and waste decomposed after being dumped into the sea, but some types of debris, such as plastic and styrofoam, could not decompose in seawater. Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act (1987)
Plastics;pollution control
[kw]U.S. Congress Prohibits Marine Plastics Dumping (Dec. 29, 1987)
[kw]Congress Prohibits Marine Plastics Dumping, U.S. (Dec. 29, 1987)
[kw]Marine Plastics Dumping, U.S. Congress Prohibits (Dec. 29, 1987)
[kw]Dumping, U.S. Congress Prohibits Marine Plastics (Dec. 29, 1987)
Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act (1987)
Plastics;pollution control
[g]North America;Dec. 29, 1987: U.S. Congress Prohibits Marine Plastics Dumping[06660]
[g]United States;Dec. 29, 1987: U.S. Congress Prohibits Marine Plastics Dumping[06660]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Dec. 29, 1987: U.S. Congress Prohibits Marine Plastics Dumping[06660]
[c]Environmental issues;Dec. 29, 1987: U.S. Congress Prohibits Marine Plastics Dumping[06660]
Studds, Gerry
Young, Donald
Jones, Walter
Davis, Robert
Reagan, Ronald
[p]Reagan, Ronald;environmental policy

The international community had banded together in 1973 to pass the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships. International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (1973) This convention, commonly called the MARPOL (for “Marine Pollution”) Convention, was amended in 1978. This international protocol was adopted by virtually all maritime nations. The MARPOL Convention has five different annexes that address oil, sewage, garbage, and plastics. Each of the annexes not only highlights a prohibited commodity but also indicates where garbage may not be dumped and designates controlled amounts and allowable concentrations of these commodities.

It was necessary for these protocols to be incorporated in U.S. law in order for them to be enforceable in the United States, thus legislation was needed to commit U.S. government support to these conventions and to their enforcement. U.S. jurisdiction included U.S. waters and U.S.-registered ships anywhere in the world. In addition, a number of issues that dealt with the oceans and the environment needed to be addressed. Thus U.S. legislation in support of the MARPOL Convention, ultimately named the Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act, addressed other environmental topics in addition to ocean pollution by plastics.

Each of the five components of the Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act addressed a specific problem, area of the ocean, or ocean research. Taken alone, none of the topics was significant enough to generate its own legislation. Titles I and IV of the legislation dealt with fishing.

Title I was the recognition of the U.S.-Japan Fishing Agreement. U.S.-Japan Fishing Agreement (1982)[U.S. Japan Fishing Agreement (1982)] This agreement allowed control over Japanese vessels fishing in the U.S. exclusive economic zone, Exclusive economic zones which extends two hundred miles from the coast of the United States. This agreement was a component of the 1982 Law of the Sea Law of the Sea Treaty (1982) convention. The number of vessels, types of fishing, areas of fishing, and amount of each type of fish caught were all covered in this agreement. (The United States has similar agreements with other nations as well.)

Title II of the act addressed the issue of plastics and attempted not only to limit the disposal of plastic at sea from ship dumping but also to address shoreside disposal sites for shipboard plastics. The issues of violations, penalties, and enforcement monitoring were also contained in this title. One specific area south of Long Island and east of the coast of New Jersey, called the New York Bight, was singled out for cleanup and restoration.

Title III of the legislation addressed research and development. This component renewed the Sea Grant College Program. Sea Grant College Program This program authorizes the funding of various studies of the sea and its environment through funding by a number of different colleges, universities, and facilities in the United States. As with the fishing agreement, this legislation is renewable in its appropriation. In this title, the legislation also addressed the issue of the Great Lakes shoreline mapping; these shorelines had not been mapped for a number of years. Resources and environmental concerns also were addressed in the act.

Title IV was controversial in that it addressed drift nets, extremely large fishing nets that are placed in the open ocean. They float at or near the surface but may extend hundreds of feet down into the sea. Because they are miles long and drift with the current, they may trap and kill a variety of fish and animals regardless of the type of catch desired. This type of fishing was relatively new at the time the act was passed and was very effective in catching large volumes of fish. Drift nets were producing an adverse impact on the environment, killing unwanted fish and animals unnecessarily.

Title V of this legislation was introduced by Congressman Walter Jones, whose district in North Carolina had been experiencing a bloom of plankton commonly called red tide. Red tides had had a disastrous effect on the local fishing and tourist industries. The legislation provided for assistance to this region.

The U.S. Coast Guard Coast Guard, U.S. was charged with enforcing the elimination of plastic pollution, not only from U.S.-registered ships but also from ships from other nations operating in U.S. territorial waters. Fines and punishments were set in the regulations, and vessels could be inspected either at the dock or while under way to determine if they were in compliance with regulations.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Environmental Protection Agency was charged with the inspection and licensing of the required shoreside reception facilities for shipboard-generated waste. Ports and other facilities are certifiable by the EPA as acceptable sites for disposal. Further, the EPA was mandated to study the use of plastics and the effects of the legislation on the marine environment and also to report its findings to Congress.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was required by the act to generate a public-service program to educate Americans about the hazards that plastic objects pose to animals in the marine environment, the proper use and disposal of plastics in the marine environment, and the use of alternative, environmentally friendly products.


Passage of the Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act, which was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on December 29, 1987, had dramatic impacts on a variety of fronts. In the twenty-first century, the funding of the National College Sea Grant Program continues to benefit the marine environment through research and development programs. The reduction in the use of large-scale drift-net fishing operations has had a positive effect on the ability of many species of fish and other marine organisms to survive and reproduce in the open ocean. The use of plastic packaging aboard ships has decreased dramatically, and the availability of alternative packaging has increased. The availability of shoreside reception sites for waste has also increased. Pollution;legislation
Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act (1987)
Plastics;pollution control

Further Reading

  • Clark, R. G. Marine Pollution. 5th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Textbook covers all forms of pollution affecting the oceans, including plastics. Includes illustrations, suggestions for further reading, and index.
  • Glover, Linda K., and Sylvia A. Earle, eds. Defying Ocean’s End: An Agenda for Action. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2004. Collection of essays examines all the ways in which human beings have polluted and exploited the world’s oceans and suggests a plan to reverse the damage. Includes illustrations, tables, and index.
  • Gourlay, K. A. Poisoners of the Seas. London: Zed Books International, 1988. Presents a polemical but useful discussion of marine pollution problems. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Ketchum, Bostwick H., et al., eds. Nearshore Waste Disposal. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1985. Collection of essays is part of a series on topics that address coastal area pollution. Includes two chapters that address the New York Bight issue of ocean dumping.
  • O’Hara, Kathryn. A Citizen’s Guide to Plastics in the Ocean: More than a Litter Problem. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Center for Environmental Education, 1988. Covers a number of issues that deal with plastics, ocean dumping, and pollution. Includes interesting artwork.
  • Talan, Maria. Ocean Pollution. San Diego, Calif.: Lucent Books, 1991. Addresses the problems caused by plastic dumping and other ocean dumping issues. Includes bibliographic references.

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