Ocean Dumping: International Treaties

Dolphins in ocean

The London Convention and London Protocol are international treaties of global application to protect the marine environment from pollution caused by the dumping of wastes and other matter into the ocean. In the United States, the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA), also known as the Ocean Dumping Act, implements the requirements of the London Convention.

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What is the London Convention?

In the 1950s-1970s, the United States and other countries became increasingly concerned about the environmental impacts of human activities on the marine environment, including the uncontrolled disposal of wastes into the ocean. The Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter of 1972, known as the London Convention, is one of the first international agreements for the protection of the marine environment from human activities.

The London Convention applies to the deliberate disposal at sea of wastes or other matter from vessels, aircraft, platforms and other man-made structures at sea, as well as to the deliberate disposal at sea of vessels, aircraft, platforms or other man-made structures themselves. Contracting Parties to the London Convention agreed to control dumping by implementing regulatory programs to assess the need for, and the potential impact of, dumping. The London Convention requires that Contracting Parties issue a permit for the dumping of wastes and other matter at sea, and generally prohibits the dumping of certain hazardous materials.   

Over time, Contracting Parties to the London Convention have amended the treaty by banning ocean dumping of certain wastes and by promoting pollution prevention and sound waste management. 

1972 Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (London Convention)

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Is the United States a Contracting Party to the London Convention?

The United States is a Contracting Party to the London Convention. The United States ratified the London Convention on April 29, 1974. The London Convention entered into force on August 30, 1975.

As of 2015, there are 87 Contracting Parties to the London Convention.

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What is the London Protocol?

In 1996, Contracting Parties to the London Convention concluded negotiations toward a new, free-standing treaty, referred to as the London Protocol, to modernize and eventually replace the London Convention. The London Protocol entered into force in 2006.

The London Protocol is intended to be more protective of the marine environment. The London Protocol expressly prohibits incineration at sea and the export of wastes and other matter for the purpose of ocean dumping. Under the London Protocol, dumping of all wastes and other materials is prohibited except the following materials listed in Annex I of the London Protocol (“the reverse list”), which may be considered for dumping: 

  • Dredged material.
  • Sewage sludge.
  • Fish wastes or material resulting from industrial fish processing operations.
  • Vessels and platforms or other man-made structures at sea.
  • Inert, inorganic geological material.
  • Organic material of natural origin.
  • Bulky items primarily comprising iron, steel, concrete and similarly unharmful materials for which the concern is physical impact, and limited to the circumstances where such wastes are generated at locations with no land-based alternatives.
  • Carbon dioxide streams from carbon dioxide capture processes for sequestration in sub-seabed geological formations.

1996 Protocol to the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter, 1972 (London Protocol)

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Is the United States a Contracting Party to the London Protocol?

The United States signed the London Protocol in 1998, but has not ratified the treaty. The President submitted the London Protocol to the Senate for advice and consent on September 4, 2007.

As of 2015, there are 45 Contracting Parties to the London Protocol.

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Why are international ocean dumping treaties important for the United States?

Through the London Convention and London Protocol, the United States works with many others to reduce and prevent pollution caused by ocean dumping. Great progress has been made towards the protection of the marine environment due to the active participation of Contracting Parties and their willingness to work together to solve problems related to the control of waste disposal into the ocean.

The London Convention and the London Protocol provide an international standard and framework for countries to individually and collectively protect and preserve our oceans. Effective implementation of the London Convention and London Protocol helps preserve biological diversity and contributes to higher productivity of ocean resources and improved fisheries. Healthy coastal and ocean environments support tourism, recreation and commerce. Successful implementation of the London Convention and London Protocol also promotes better waste management strategies. These strategies prioritize re-use and recycling, and foster innovations to reduce waste generation and thus the need for waste disposal.

Though the United States has not yet ratified the London Protocol, the effective administration of relevant federal laws, as a practical matter, aligns actions of the United States with most provisions of the modernized treaty. The United States’ prohibition on the ocean dumping of industrial wastes in 1988 (phasing out the practice in 1992) demonstrated to other countries that such a goal could be accomplished without sacrificing economic growth or standards of living.

The United States actively participates in the annual Consultative Meeting of Contracting Parties to the London Convention and London Protocol. Among other things, the United States’ participation includes engagement on treaty implementation issues; deliberation on and consideration of proposed resolutions and amendments; compliance and regulatory aspects of dumping and marine pollution; development of environmentally and technically sound international guidelines for various types of ocean dumping that may be permitted; and support for building capacity in other countries to enable effective measures to control ocean dumping. The Department of State leads the United States delegation and is supported by EPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Navy (Navy), U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), Department of Energy (DOE) and Department of Interior (DOI). The United States’ active engagement in treaty meetings demonstrates to other countries the American spirit of productive collaboration to resolve common concerns.

The United States is an active participant in the annual joint meetings of the London Convention Scientific Group and London Protocol Scientific Group. The Scientific Groups are responsible for providing scientific and technical advice on ocean dumping and marine pollution to the Consultative Meeting. EPA leads the United States delegation and is supported by the State Department, USACE, NOAA, Navy, USCG, DOE and DOI. As a historical leader in ocean science, the United States’ participation in the science groups assures that treaty implementation is guided by the sound science supported by America’s scientific expertise.

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Why does the United States report its dumping activities internationally?

London Convention and London Protocol Contracting Parties are required to submit an annual report on all ocean dumping permits issued and monitoring activities undertaken. This report describes the types and amounts of materials permitted for ocean dumping, permit compliance monitoring, and ocean disposal site monitoring.

EPA and USACE together develop and submit the annual United States Ocean Dumping Report to the Secretariat for the London Convention and London Protocol at the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The IMO is a United Nations specialized agency with responsibility for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine pollution from ships.

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What if I observe an ocean dumping incident?

Mariners or other persons who observe dumping incidents in ocean waters that could be violations of the London Convention and Protocol are encouraged to report these events as follows:

  • Immediately notify the proper authorities so that they can determine an appropriate action. United States Coast Guard contacts are listed below:
    • National Response Center
      • c/o United States Coast Guard (CG-3RPF-2) - Room 2111-B
      • 2100 2nd Street, SW Washington, DC 20593 - 0001
      • Tel: +1-800 424 8802, +1 202 267 2180
      • Email: HQS-DG-lst-NRCINFO@uscg.mil
      • Fax: +1-202-267-1322
    • United States Coast Guard Sector Guam
      • P.O. Box 176
      • Guam, Guam (United States)
      • Tel: +1 671 339 4107/2001
    • United States Coast Guard Sector San Juan, Puerto Rico
      • 5 Calle La Puntilla
      • San Juan, Puerto Rico 00901
      • Tel: +1 787 289 2041 (24 hr)
      • Fax: +1 787 729 6706
  • Complete a Dumping Incident Information Form and Supplementary Information Form as completely as possible.

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How is ocean dumping evaluated under the London Convention and London Protocol?  

Contracting Parties to the London Convention and London Protocol have developed international guidance (or guidelines) to assist national authorities responsible for regulating ocean dumping in meeting their obligations under the two instruments. The guidelines contain step-by-step procedures to evaluate wastes and other matter being considered for ocean dumping, including waste prevention audits, assessment of alternatives to ocean dumping, waste characterization, assessment of potential adverse environmental effects of dumping, disposal site selection, and monitoring and permitting procedures. Specific Guidelines have been developed for the assessment of the materials listed on Annex I of the London Protocol. The Guidelines are available on the London Convention/London Protocol website, and the publications can be obtained from IMO Publishing.

The London Convention and London Protocol prohibit the dumping of wastes with more than de minimis levels of radioactivity. Contracting Parties to the London Convention have developed guidance for evaluating materials to determine if they contain de minimis levels of radionuclides.

In addition, Contracting Parties to the London Convention and London Protocol have developed guidances for monitoring, for sampling and analysis of dredged material, to assist countries with limited experience in regulating ocean dumping, and to share best practices in protecting the marine environment.

London Convention and London Protocol Contracting Parties have also developed advice for management of cargoes that have spoiled onboard vessels, placement of artificial reefs, and best management practices for removal of anti-fouling coatings from ships.  

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How have the London Convention and Protocol addressed levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?

Contracting Parties to the London Convention and London Protocol have taken steps to address potential harm to the marine environment from the evaluation of new experimental technologies designed to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or mitigate its adverse effects.

Sea otters on an ice berg.Courtesy of Eric Vance.Sub-Seabed Sequestration of Carbon Dioxide in Sub-Seabed Geological Formations (Offshore Carbon Capture and Storage)

Sub-seabed sequestration of carbon dioxide is a climate change mitigation technique. The process involves the capture of carbon dioxide from industrial and energy-related sources, transport to an offshore sub-seabed geological formation, and long-term isolation from the atmosphere in that formation. The intent of carbon dioxide sequestration in sub-seabed geological formations is to capture and to prevent release into the biosphere of substantial quantities of carbon dioxide derived from human activities. The aim is to retain the carbon dioxide streams within these geological formations permanently. The risks include those associated with leakage into the marine environment of carbon dioxide and other substances in, or mobilized by, the carbon dioxide stream.

In 2006, Contracting Parties to the London Protocol adopted amendments to regulate sub-seabed sequestration of carbon dioxide in sub-seabed geological formations under the treaty. Contracting Parties have developed guidance to address the risks posed by carbon dioxide sequestration in sub-seabed geological formations and potential effects on the marine environment.

Ocean Fertilization

Ocean fertilization, in the context of the London Protocol, has been defined as any activity undertaken by humans with the principal intent to stimulate primary production in the oceans. Ocean fertilization does not include conventional aquaculture, or mariculture, or the creation of artificial reefs.

Ocean fertilization (for example, adding nutrients such as iron to the ocean) has been proposed as a climate mitigation measure. In order for ocean fertilization to mitigate climate change, three processes need to occur:

  1. ocean fertilization must lead to increased growth of phytoplankton, consolidating carbon and nutrients together into organic material;
  2. this organic material must be transferred into the deep ocean so that it does not simply get recycled near the surface, releasing its captured carbon back to the atmosphere; and
  3. this transfer of carbon from the surface ocean to the deep ocean must result in a compensating transfer of carbon from the atmosphere into the surface ocean.

In 2007, the London Convention and London Protocol Contracting Parties issued a statement of concern about the potential for large-scale ocean fertilization to have negative impacts on the marine environment and human health. Adding nutrients to the ocean causes changes in the structure and functioning of marine ecosystems. These changes may result in unintended negative consequences, such as increases in deep ocean hypoxia or anoxia and decreases in productivity in regions remote from the ocean fertilization site.

In 2010, London Convention and London Protocol Contracting Parties adopted Resolution LC-LP.2 (2010) on the “Assessment Framework for Scientific Research Involving Ocean Fertilization,” which guides Parties on how to assess proposals for ocean fertilization research and provides detailed steps for completion of an environmental assessment, including risk management and monitoring.  

In 2013, London Protocol Contracting Parties adopted amendments to regulate marine geoengineering activities, including ocean fertilization. The amendments define marine geoengineering as “a deliberate intervention in the marine environment to manipulate natural processes, including to counteract anthropogenic climate change and/or its impacts, and that has the potential to result in deleterious effects, especially where those effects may be widespread, long-lasting or severe.” The amendments to regulate marine geoengineering under the London Protocol have not entered into force.

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Where can I learn more about the London Convention and London Protocol?

Additional information and resources about the London Convention and London Protocol are available through the International Maritime Organization’s website.