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Handling Shipping Waste

Hovering just over 1,000 nautical miles off the coast of San Francisco, a vortex of marine debris, trash and plastic has steadily accumulated to a gargantuan size.

Scientists are finally getting round to cleaning up the so-called Great Pacific garbage patch, but it is symptomatic of a larger problem. Millions of tonnes of plastic and other forms of marine debris are funnelled into the sea every day, damaging wildlife and biodiversity.

The general consensus is that land-based sources, including litter deposited in rivers or on beaches, are to blame for the unfathomable levels of trash in the ocean. However, as the fight to clean up the oceans intensifies, the maritime industry is facing its own share of scrutiny over practices, with environmental organisations claiming that ships and ports need to do more to face up to their own contribution to this global crisis.

While land-based sources account for an estimated 80% of marine litter, sea-based sources reportedly count for the remainder and areas of high shipping activity can see a large amount of waste. According to the Dutch Coast Guard, the maritime industry accounts for 40% of trash in the heavily trafficked North Sea.

In tandem with the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) latest steps to address shipping’s environmental impact, the sector is also under increasing pressure to ensure waste is handled and monitored effectively.

Regulating maritime waste

The industry’s impact is certainly not due to a lack of legislation. Alongside the IMO, major seafaring nations have already adopted a number of international conventions to address the issue over the years, ranging from the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention, to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL).

“It’s a matter of making sure these conventions and laws are complied with and enforced.”

Since its adoption in 2013, MARPOL Annex V has sought to eliminate and reduce the amount of garbage – the definition of which covers a wide variety of food, domestic and operational waste – being dispensed from ships into the sea.

Ships with a gross tonnage exceeding 100 tons must have a garbage management plan on board, which includes written procedures for how crew should collect, store and process garbage. Those with a tonnage of more than 400 tons must record their disposal and incinerations in a ‘Garbage Record Book’.

Critics have argued that some of these scopes could be widened. For example, small fishing vessels far below the tonnage requirement for a garbage management plan still contribute to marine debris. In addition, MARPOL has not yet been ratified by some nations, allowing ships registered with those countries to legally discharge garbage overboard.

However, the real issue is enforcing the rules. Complying with MARPOL effectively is dependent on good practices on board. Ship crews have to ensure, for example, that they don’t accidentally contaminate waste streams – i.e. chucking plastics in with verified garbage for disposal.

Jeanne Grasso is vice chair of the Maritime & International Trade Practice Group and member of the maritime emergency response team at US law firm Blank Rome. She says that in every industry there are outliers, but rather than introducing new regulation, one answer is ensuring enforcement is stronger across the board. As an example, she points to the US Coast Guard, which closely monitors how many enforcement actions ships have had, prioritises enforcement accordingly, and inspects ships at least once a year as policy.