Who is Legally Responsible for Cleaning the Plastic Out of the Ocean?

By Drew Crusciel, Staff Writer

Courtesy of Pixabay.com

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) is tasked with protecting human health and the environment.[1] One of the most important ways in which they carry out this mission is by writing and enforcing regulations that make those responsible for contamination either clean up or reimburse EPA for its cleanup.[2] Over 160 countries worldwide have a similar governmental body responsible for environmental protection.[3] However, it may surprise you to learn that there is no agency, and no government in the world that is legally responsible for cleaning the plastic out of the ocean.[4]

         The United Nations Convention of the Law of the Seas (“UNCLOS”) is the world’s foremost authority in outlining the responsibilities of nations regarding the sea.[5] UNCLOS establishes that a nation’s territorial waters, an area of ocean over which that nation has full sovereignty, extend up to twelve miles from the coast.[6] Beyond and adjacent to the territorial waters, a nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone (“EEZ”) extends no further than two-hundred miles from the coast.[7] A nation and her citizens have exclusive rights within their EEZ to explore, exploit, conserve, and manage natural resources including fish, minerals, and fossil fuels.[8] Still further beyond lie the High Seas, which compromises all parts of the ocean that are not part of territorial waters or an EEZ.[9] No nation is allowed to claim sovereignty over any part of the High Seas, and all nations and citizens of those nations are allowed to navigate these waters.[10]

This system of dividing the world’s oceans has generally been a success in ensuring that the nations of the world are able to take advantage of the resources the ocean provides while also fulfilling their responsibilities.[11]These responsibilities include a requirement that member states must adopt and enforce regulations to prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment.[12] However, in terms of plastic pollution, there is one glaring flaw. Despite the measures enacted and enforced by many nations, plastic is still entering the ocean, and the zones in which plastic accumulates, such as the well-known Great Pacific Garbage Patch, are located on the High Seas, outside of national territories.[13] This means that there is no single party seen as responsible for cleaning it up.[14] Only international organizations or, more commonly, independent private initiatives such as non-profit foundations are willing to tackle this problem.[15]

Unfortunately, there is currently no happy ending to this story. No nation or entity is legally responsible for cleaning the plastic out of the oceans. However, this does not mean that the problem is unsolvable. The aforementioned non-profit foundations are doing great work to ensure that our oceans will be livable for the future, but individuals also have a part to play.[16]

By lobbying our governments, citizens can enact change including demanding stronger regulations against plastic polluters. Because the UNCLOS has no direct power to enforce its responsibilities, citizens must hold their nations accountable. One example is the Plastic Pollution Producer Responsibility Act, a bill recently passed in California, which is anticipated to eliminate 23 million tons of plastic over the next decade.[17] Legislation like this can help to reduce the amount of plastic entering the ocean. As for the plastic that already exists in the ocean, governments around the world should be encouraged to join international organizations that take up the responsibility of cleaning the ocean. Additionally, citizens can help in more active ways, including organizing or participating in cleanups, reducing the use of plastics, donating to nonprofits, and recycling whenever possible.[18]

Ultimately, the fact that there is no one legally responsible for cleaning the oceans should act as an incentive for everyone, as a citizen of the earth, to take a more active role in environmental efforts. We only have one planet, and the ocean is among the most vital aspects of our world. We should all strive to ensure that governments, companies, and individuals take accountability for the protection of our oceans. By doing this, we will be able to leave the world a better place than we found it.

[1] https://www.epa.gov/aboutepa/our-mission-and-what-we-do.

[2] https://www.epa.gov/enforcement/waste-chemical-and-cleanup-enforcement#cleanup

[3] https://sdg.iisd.org/news/environmental-laws-impeded-by-lack-of-enforcement-first-ever-global-assessment-finds/

[4] https://theoceancleanup.com/faq/who-should-be-responsible-for-cleaning-the-gyres/

[5] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Law-of-the-Sea

[6] https://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/unclos_e.pdf

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] https://www.un.org/pga/76/2022/04/29/40th-anniversary-of-the-adoption-of-the-united-nations-convention-on-the-law-of-the-sea-unclos/

[12] https://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/unclos_e.pdf

[13] https://theoceancleanup.com/faq/who-should-be-responsible-for-cleaning-the-gyres/

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] https://www.marineinsight.com/environment/15-brave-organisations-fighting-save-oceans/

[17] https://cleantechnica.com/2022/06/20/should-plastic-pollution-producers-be-held-accountable/

[18] https://theoceancleanup.com/faq/how-can-i-help-the-ocean-cleanup-as-an-individual/

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