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River and harbor remediation: “polluter pays,” alternative finance, and the promise of a “circular economy”



Contaminated sediments in rivers, lakes, and harbors around the world result in diminished ecological health, degradation of environmental resources, economic losses, and, in rare cases, impacts on human health. Despite the ongoing interest in the cleanup of contaminated sediments in rivers and harbors, little progress has been made in reducing the number of contaminated sites worldwide. Proponents of a “circular economy” model assert that it can facilitate the cleanup of contaminated sediments through product and process design to eliminate waste of resources, to beneficially use (and reuse) products and materials, and to restore ecologies. This paper evaluates the application of circular economy models to practice in the treatment, removal, and processing of contaminated sediments found in waterways.

Materials and methods

No materials were used in this work. Methods consisted of literature research and review.

Results and discussion

Much of the difficulty in advancing the cause of contaminated sediment cleanup can be attributed to the high cost of cleanups and the difficulty in assigning financial responsibility for the cost. Simple schemes dependent on identifying polluters are fraught with underlying complexity. More elaborate approaches tied in with waterfront redevelopment show some promise but are yet to be applied routinely. New advances in the understanding of how sediments may, or may not, factor into the utility of circularity models pose new challenges and opportunities, with the potential to complement new funding paradigms.


The most promising possibilities for achieving circularity in sediment management lie in a kind of punctuated circularity, which requires individual, project-based beneficial use opportunities. However, these ideal situations are likely to remain rare for the foreseeable future, without advancements in technology and regulatory approaches, as well as development of market demand for the products made from contaminated sediments.

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  1. For the purposes of this work, contaminated sediments refer to those sediments in rivers, harbors, lakes, and other water bodies that contain sufficiently elevated concentrations of contamination to create unacceptable risks to human health or ecological receptors, thus warranting remediation.

  2. The GLLA was authorized in 2002 and reauthorized in 2008. Specifics about the act may be found at: The rules for implementation may be found at:

  3. Detzner et al. do not define the unmet factors. They simply say, “no bid was submitted in the Europewide bidding procedure held in 2003 that met all the economic, legal and ecological criteria of the tender invitation” (Detzner et al. 2004).

  4. Bortone et al. state, “…untreated, relatively clean dredged material can be used, for example, for filling up deep holes, which were for instance created due to sand extraction, or just for relocating it in the river basin.” While this practice is “in line with natural sedimentation processes,” it is not a solution to the risk posed by the contaminated sediments. It also presupposes the existence of a suitable site for the relocation.

  5. van der Laan et al. refer to mixing with cement as chemical immobilization. There is some variability in the designation of this technology as physical stabilization or solidification as opposed to chemical immobilization. We have used the authors’ terminology for consistency with their work.

  6. Novosol is a registered trademark of Solvey.

  7. The authors are unaware of statistics comparing completed sediment remediation projects to the country-specific or global backlog of sites. However, it is well accepted that the remediation of these sites is lengthy and is fraught with difficulty. For example, the Portland, Oregon, Superfund Site was listed in 2000 and is likely 20 years (at least) from completion of cleanup. The Portland Harbor case is not an isolated example. Similarly, long durations are observed for many other remediation projects in the USA. Outside the USA, it is even harder to draw comparisons because many countries do not publicly list contaminated sites. In instances where they do, such as in Italy, lengthy durations similar to those found for remediation sites in the USA are reported. In Italy, there were 57 Sites of National Interest in 2012. Today, there are 41, but most of the reduction has been the result of changed criteria for listing, not the result of successful remediation (ISPRA 2020).

  8. Extractive, linear “take, make, waste” processes are sometimes also called “take, make, dispose.” Proposals to make processes “circular” attempt to design toward beneficial use not disposal. See Lacy et al. 2020.

  9. Indeed, regulators and policy makers can adopt circularity in at least two ways: as a general principle or as a detailed set of required evaluative, design, and procedures to be implemented in every remediation plan.

  10. One referee during the Journal’s review of this article emphasized the necessary role subsidy will often play, relative to state involvement in circularity-policy decisions and rules. We agree.


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The work on this manuscript was supported by our organizations as well as several highly capable individuals. Lindsay Burns provided overall coordination. Andrew D’Ewart edited the manuscript. Jennifer Fredenburg provided graphic design. Erin O’Connell provided research support.

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Correspondence to P. Spadaro.

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Spadaro, P., Rosenthal, L. River and harbor remediation: “polluter pays,” alternative finance, and the promise of a “circular economy”. J Soils Sediments 20, 4238–4247 (2020).

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