The Biden administration will spend $895 million over the next five years to reduce plastic and other debris in oceans and estuaries through grant and other programs at multiple U.S. agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the State Dept., EPA said on April 18. 

“The vast majority of the plastic trash entering our oceans is due to inadequate waste management," EPA Assistant Administrator Jane Nishida said, adding that the agency "is committed to reducing plastic waste from the United States and we look forward to working with governments around the world to reduce the threat to ocean ecosystems.”  She spoke at an international conference in the Indonesian city of Palu.

EPA contends that reduced trash loadings in U.S. waterways will serve as a replicable model for other nations, many of which are not adequately managing water pollution caused by trash. 

Much of the new federal funding for marine plastic reduction has been appropriated through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, with EPA the largest recipient among federal agencies. It will award $350 million over the next five years to improve recycling in the U.S., including $275 million for recycling infrastructure. 

EPA will also manage an appropriation of $132 million under the law for fiscal 2022-2026 to the National Estuary Program—with 28.individual estuary programs gaining funds for a range of infrastructure projects, including hard infrastructure improvements in stormwater and septic systems, green infrastructure and programs to reduce nutrient and trash loadings in U.S. waterways. 

Plastic and other waste collecting in aquatic “hotspots” is a growing global problem, as production of plastics and plastic packaging has increased exponentially since the mid-1960s. The World Economic Forum estimates that 8 million tons of waste enter the world’s oceans every year, the equivalent to a full load of trash being dumped from a garbage truck every minute. 

Municipal stormwater departments are particularly challenged by accumulating levels of trash, which clog municipal sewers and pipes as well as waterways, says Seth Brown, executive director of the National Municipal Stormwater Alliance, noting that as much as 80% of the trash that ends up in oceans starts out in land-based rivers and streams.

In recognition of the problem, some cities have incorporated trash and litter reductions into their sewer and construction permitting structures:

Washington, D.C. established a total maximum daily load (TMDL) limit for trash in the Anacostia River watershed in 2011.  San Francisco, Los Angeles and other cities in California have enacted similar water quality standards, and in 2015, the state water board and Caltrans incorporated trash control into their national pollutant discharge (NPDES) permitting requirements. 

As the need to address aquatic trash has grown, so has the variety and quantity of technologies to capture and recycle it. These range from stationary trash interceptors such as Mr. Wheel in Baltimore, which captures trash before it can migrate to the Atlantic Ocean, to moving vessels through projects as in The Ocean Cleanup, which equips small vessels with booms and other devices to collect plastic in rivers and oceans and recycle it. 

An EPA working group tasked with studying trash affecting stormwater and solid waste systems plans to release a report in coming months that will include best practices for municipal stormwater department professionals and the public.