Faced with the need to preserve a fragile marine ecosystem, the IMO (International Maritime Organization) adopted the MARPOL Convention in 1973.

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In 1978, the IMO added amendments and an application protocol. The convention is now known as MARPOL 73/78. This convention deals in particular with the management of waste generated by maritime transport. It has been ratified by all the major countries in the world maritime transport and has been transposed into European law (Directive 59/2000 / EC). The MARPOL Convention must therefore be respected by all vessels.

The Marpol convention drastically limits the discards of slops on the high seas and prohibits them near the coast and in most European seas. Substantial surplus and other waste must be deposited in port reception facilities at the expense of the shipowner. The regulations also oblige the ports to equip themselves with waste collection and treatment infrastructures.

Although still marginal, the practice of degassing at sea legal is to disappear. In fact, the constraints set by the MARPOL Convention, in terms of the concentration of products that may be rejected, the speed of these operations and the monitoring of quantities, have led shipowners to prefer unloading at the port.

This regulation is accompanied by frequent checks of ships, as well as satellite and airplane tracking (Erika II European Measures). These controls, based in particular on better traceability of waste and significant penalties, have effectively fought against illegal offshore degassing.

Once on land, the storage and treatment of these industrial wastes are subject to specific regulations. The treatment sites must comply with the European Seveso I and II directives, obtain a license to operate, and comply with environmental law (pollutants, greenhouse gas emissions), particularly those covered by European Directives 2000/76 / EC and 2008/98 / EC (Polluter Pays Principle and Producer Responsibility).

Industrial waste is also regulated by the Basel Convention. Their export outside the European Union is drastically regulated.



Since 1978, the management of waste generated by maritime transport is governed by the international Marpol 73/78 convention. The convention, set up by the IMO (International Maritime Organization) is the international reference in terms of environmental maritime regulations. It has been ratified by all major countries in global shipping.

It contains 6 appendices, which cover all of the various types of waste produced by ships. Appendices I, IV, and V regulate the discharge by ships and respectively focus on the prevention of pollution due to hydrocarbons, water waste and household waste.

The convention places tight controls on the discharge of waste at sea meaning that most of the waste must be disposed of by the ship owner at port reception plants. However, the convention does not regulate how the waste is treated and recycled once on land.

The following clauses in particular are provided for in the appendix I of the MARPOL Convention:
- The total quantity of discharge in the sea by a tanker shall never exceed 1/30,000 of the transport capacity of the ship and not more than 15 ppm
- No discharge in the sea shall be made at less than 50 miles from the coast
- Creation of a manifesto recording the management of the oil transported by each ship, which proves all the loading/unloading, together with consumer monitoring
- Creation of standardized procedures of communication about the quantity of oil waste to port authorities at the destination more than 24 hours before the arrival at the port
- Generalization of double hull oil tankers (Segregated Ballast System then double hull in 1993) with a separated tank for ballast waters (as soon as the ship volume exceeds 20.000 dwt), except for oil tankers transporting crude oil that use the “crude oil washing” method
- Increase of “special areas”, inside of which discharging hydrocarbon waste is forbidden (Mediterranean Sea, Persian Gulf, Antarctic Ocean, North Europe, Arabian Sea…)
- Implementation of counting systems of discharges, measurement of the oil density of waste waters and protection against accidental discharge.

More information :  IMO website

The main type of “bunker” oil for ships is heavy fuel oil, derived as a residue from crude oil distillation. Crude oil contains sulphur which, following combustion in the engine, ends up in ship emissions. Sulphur oxides (SOx) are known to be harmful to human health, causing respiratory symptoms and lung disease. In the atmosphere, SOx can lead to acid rain, which can harm crops, forests and aquatic species, and contributes to the acidification of the oceans.

Limiting SO emissions from ships will improve air quality and protects the environment.

IMO regulations to reduce sulphur oxides (SOx) emissions from ships first came into force in 2005, under Annex VI of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (known as the MARPOL Convention). Since then, the limits on sulphur oxides have been progressively tightened.

From 1 January 2020, the limit for sulphur in fuel oil used on board ships operating outside designated emission control areas will be reduced to 0.50% m/m (mass by mass). This will significantly reduce the amount of sulphur oxides emanating from ships and should have major health and environmental benefits for the world, particularly for populations living close to ports and coasts.

You can also download a more detailed set of FAQ on IMO's website here

The European Union transposed the MARPOL Convention into the directive 59/2000. The EMSA (European Maritime Safety Agency) is implementing means to actively fight against unauthorized waste discharges in the sea.

Under the terms of the directive, “ship-generated waste” means all the waste, including residual waters and residues other than freight residues, produced during the operation of a ship and which come under the appendices I, IV and V of Marpol 73/78. Ship-generated waste also includes waste linked to the freight as defined in the directives for the application of the appendix V of Marpol 73/78; “cargo residues” means cargo residues on board remaining in the hold and the cargo tanks after the end of the unloading and cleaning operations, including the surplus and quantities discharged during the loading/unloading; “port reception plants”, any fixed plant, floating or mobile, that can be used for the collection of ship operation waste or cargo residues.

The directive focuses on all EU ports and all ships, no matter what their flag of convenience, calling in at an EU port. The ports are required to provide ad hoc plants with regard to the extent of the port, the vessel category, and the type of waste dropped off in order not to cause an unusual delay for the ship which is dropping off, subject to compensation.

The captain, whose ship’s point of destination is an EU port, has a duty of notification. The notification mentions the last port of delivery, the quantity of remaining waste at the time and the date of delivery. He is required to drop off operations waste before leaving a Community port, subject to exception if this captain proves an adequate storage capacity on board the ship. If a ship is proven to have gone to sea without depositing and without derogation, the next port of call is warned. Then, the ship must be inspected in the new port prior to any handling of goods. In all cases, 25% of the ships calling in at Community ports may be inspected in accordance with the Port State Control.

More information on the EMSA website

Adopted in 1992, the Basel Convention aims to reduce cross-border movements of hazardous waste to avoid some countries becoming depositories of waste on a global scale.

The types of waste covered by the Convention are all industrial, pharmaceutical and particularly chemical waste, which includes all the hydrocarbon waste or mixtures of hydrocarbons and water.

The Basel Convention was passed by more than 165 countries in the world. It was transposed into European law by the regulation (EC) 1013/2006.
Its main goal is to implement traceability measures for waste and to anticipate and limit its movement.

For instance:
- It is forbidden to export or to import waste to/from a State which is a not a signatory of the Convention;
- It is forbidden to export waste to a State which is signatory of the Convention if the latter does not give a written approval;
- Cross-border movements shall be authorized only if the transport and treatment of the concerned waste is harmless;
- The waste shall be packed, labeled and transported in accordance with international regulations;
- Any State may add further conditions to this Convention.

Read the Basel Convention


Waste management on national territory is within the competence of each State.

The European Union controls national policies towards waste treatment, thanks to the directive 2008/98/EC:
- The polluter pays principle: those who generate waste must pay the management cost;
- The proximity principle: the waste must be managed at the closest place to where it was produced;
- The responsibility principle of the producer for the potential pollution that could be caused by the waste.

Consult directive 2008/98/EC