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The Marine Debris Act

By Sophie Lewis

Image by Brian Yurasits (@wildlife_by_yuri)

There are many pieces of legislation that protect our oceans in the US, but one of the most important is the Marine Debris Research, Prevention, and Reduction Act. The goal of this act is to reduce the amount of marine debris and occurrences of marine debris and to try to reduce its adverse impacts on the marine environment and navigation safety. In 2006 this act was established and congress authorized the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration program (NOAA) to work on marine debris through this act. The Marine Debris act was then amended in 2012, 2018, and 2020. The amendments were important because they not only renewed the acts, but they also updated them.

The original act of 2006 called for a program within the NOAA and the US Coast Guard to help “identify, determine sources of, assess, reduce, and prevent marine debris and its adverse impacts on the marine environment and navigation safety”. The program components were mapping, identification, impact assessment and removal and prevention. There was also a section outlining education and outreach for the public and other stakeholders regarding the negative effects of marine debris and its impact on the environment. It calls on the Coast Guard to take actions to reduce violations of MARPOL annex V (which seeks to eliminate the amount of trash being discharged into the ocean from ships) and take actions to increase its implementation. This was the creation of this act, but it has since been amended three times in order to increase its impact in creating a cleaner environment.

In 2012 the Marine Debris Research, Prevention and Reduction Act was first amended in the Coast Guard and Maritime Transport Act of 2012 in Title VI Marine Debris. It was here where the official name of the act was shortened to simply be the Marine Debris Act. The purpose of these amendments were to shift the goal of the act to address the impacts of marine debris on the US economy as well as the marine environment, and safe navigation through the assessment, prevention, and removal of marine debris. The Marine Debris Act was amended again in 2018 to promote international action in reducing marine debris. These amendments may be referred to as the Save our Seas Act of 2018. The act calls to “reduce the incidence of marine debris, including providing technical assistance to expand waste management systems internationally.” It also outlines protocol for what to do in the case of a serious marine debris event. At the request of the state that was affected by the event the administrator may assist in the cleanup and response required. There is also a higher degree of importance placed on international cooperation regarding marine debris. Both of these two amendments only made slight changes to the original plan to make it more modern and more impactful.

The most recent amendment to the Marine Debris Act was the Save our Seas Act 2.0 of 2020. These amendments focused on combating marine debris, improving domestic infrastructure to prevent marine debris, the establishment of the Marine Debris Foundation, and the encouragement of enhanced global engagement to combat marine debris. Senators Bob Menendez, Dan Sullivan and Sheldon Whitehouse describe Save our Seas Act 2.0 as “represent[ing] significant progress and set[ing] all of us up for continued efforts of all kinds in this field.” This bipartisan bill spanned three Senate committees and had broad support across the political parties. It also was passed through the senate very quickly, which is impressive, even considering its bipartisan nature. Senators Menendez, Sullivan, and Whitehouse commented on the ambition of this bill, but also of its necessity to save our oceans from pollution.

Although the Marine Debris Act and its subsequent amendments take big steps to protect our oceans, there has been strong criticism that it is not doing enough to combat this crisis. Outside of congress, this bill has won very little support from environmentalists. The government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity described the Save our Seas 2.0 Act as “woefully inadequate to the scale of the crisis.” They believe that this act focuses too much on removing plastic from our oceans, and while important, it removes the responsibility from the plastic industry. The problem is that the plastic industry continues to produce immense amounts of plastic and the government is not doing enough to decrease this and wean the country off of its reliance on this material. The problem of ocean pollution will never get better if the reliance on plastic continues. Senators Menendez, Sullivan, and Whitehouse acknowledge that “not one bill in Congress can solve a global crisis such as marine debris on its own.” In order to combat the crisis of marine debris and ocean pollution it is crucial that the Senate does not stop here and creates legislation that goes after plastic production to end our reliance on the material. This is the only way to stop the root of this crisis instead of just doing the clean up. The Marine Debris Act and its subsequent amendments are a starting point, but there is still much more to be done to combat this emergency.


Works Cited

Committee on Natural Resources. [Bill], Authenticated US Government Information (2012). Retrieved May 29, 2023,



Moran, G. (2023, January 23). The house just passed another “Save our seas” act. here’s why it won’t. The Intercept.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (2013, July 9). The Marine Debris Act. OR&R’s Marine Debris




NOAA. [Bill], Save our Seas Act 2.0 (2020). Washington.

S.362 - marine debris research, prevention, and reduction act. (2006, December 22).

Save our seas 2.0 tackles global marine debris crisis. Roll Call. (2019, December 13).

Save our Seas Act of 2018, One Hundred and Fifteenth Congress of the United States of America (2018). Washington.


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