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Water: Marine Debris

Prevention, Control, and Reduction: Solid Waste

Disposable vs. Reusable Bags

new Click on the links below for EPA's answers to frequently asked questions regarding the use of disposable and reusable bags. 

- Does EPA support laws to ban or tax disposable bags? 
- Are paper or plastic shopping bags better for the environment? How about reusable bags versus disposable bags?

What Materials Can Be Recycled?

Plastic bottles and bags can be recycled. Find out what other materials can be recovered for recycling at the Common Wastes and Materials site.

What Can You Do?

Anyone, from a student to a CEO, can prevent solid waste from ending up in our oceans. Find out more on the What You Can Do site.

Did You Know?
  • Sometimes natural events like hurricanes can cause marine debris. Find out more about EPA disaster debris removal.
  • Recycling just 1 ton of aluminum cans conserves more than 207 million Btu, the equivalent of 36 barrels of oil, or 1,665 gallons of gasoline (EPA 2007).
  • Americans generated about 254 million tons of waste in 2007. 33.4% of this waste was recycled or composted. Find out how you can reduce, reuse, or recycle your waste!

Solid Waste

Marine debris is often the result of poorly managed waste from human activities. Almost everything we do leaves behind some kind of waste, from everyday household trash (Municipal Solid Waste) to industrial and manufacturing waste (Industrial Materials Recycling). The amount of waste produced continues to rise; between 1960 and 2007, the average amount of trash generated in the U.S. nearly doubled from 2.6 to 4.6 pounds per person per day (EPA 2007). This waste can find its way into the oceans, where it becomes marine debris.

The three primary strategies for effectively managing materials and waste are reduce, reuse, and recycle. Reduce waste by considering product packaging and making smart purchasing decisions. Purchase products manufactured with recycled content (learn more at Buy Recycled). Reuse containers and products. Recycle anything from plastics to electronics.

Marine debris items often consist of materials that are recyclable. Three of the top five marine debris items collected during the National Marine Debris Monitoring Program, a 5-year study of marine debris trends on U.S. beaches, were items that potentially could have been recycled: plastic bottles, plastic bags, and cans. However, lack of knowledge and infrastructure may limit even the best efforts to reduce, reuse, or recycle. EPA's Resource Conservation Challenge tries to address these challenges through partnerships and priority programs. One program is Recycling on the Go , an initiative to encourage recycling in public places and to prevent loss of resources. By making recycling more convenient, this program can prevent intentional and unintentional abandonment of materials that may become marine debris. Another EPA program, WasteWise, works with many different organizations to target reduction of municipal solid waste and certain industrial wastes.

Accidental mismanagement of solid waste can also contribute to marine debris. Overflowing or overturned garbage cans and recycling bins can leave waste in the street where it may be carried by wind or rain into stormwater drains and water bodies. Covering, containing, and other proper controls of solid waste can reduce the amount of marine debris entering the ocean. Additionally, municipalities play a key role in the control of solid waste by ensuring that best management practices are followed for waste collection and landfills are covered and contained.

Intentional mismanagement of waste also occurs. Properly managing waste requires extra time and effort. Trash cans, recycling containers, or a recycling center may not be readily available, which can lead to inappropriate disposal, like littering. Disposal facilities for large or hazardous items may be difficult to find or charge fees, resulting in inappropriate and illegal dumping. Increased availability of appropriate infrastructure and incentives for proper disposal can reduce incidents of intentional waste mismanagement.

Reducing the amount of solid waste and improving waste management conserves resources, offers potential economic savings, and ultimately decreases the amount of marine debris.


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