Now is our chance to turn the tide on ocean plastic pollution
Plastic pollution is one of the most visible threats facing the ocean today, and the underlying numbers are staggering. An estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic waste enter the ocean each year – the equivalent of a garbage truck full of plastics dumping into the ocean every minute. Plastics have been found everywhere from Arctic ice sheets to remote islands to the deepest ocean trenches. They’re in our drinking water, our table salt, and yes, much of our seafood. The science around plastic impacts on humans is young, but we know plastics can disrupt marine food webs in a number of ways, and that alone is cause for action.
Ocean Conservancy and our partners mobilized more than 1 million volunteers in 2018 to remove 23 million pounds of trash from beaches and waterways during our annual International Coastal Cleanup, or ICC – all in a single day. The majority of the 97 million items collected around the world were single-use plastics. It was our largest ICC to date; but we have long recognized that cleanups alone are not the answer. Ocean Conservancy would have to stage a volunteer event of that scale every single day for more than two years just to break even with what scientists estimate is entering the ocean annually.
What this means is that we need bold upstream solutions that reduce unnecessary single-use plastics and prevent plastics from entering the ocean from the start. Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal’s (D-Calif.) new Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, introduced Tuesday in Congress, offers some strong measures we need to tackle ocean plastic pollution.
The bill calls for implementation of extended producer responsibility (often called EPR) measures, where plastics makers, as well as sellers of plastic products and packaging, would bear responsibility for the management and disposal of waste associated with their products. The bill would phase out certain plastic items that are known to be especially difficult to recycle or damaging to the environment, including plastic carryout bags, foam food containers and drinkware, and plastic utensils. It also recommends establishing minimum recycled content standards for plastic beverage containers, which will help incentivize recycling.
While this is a small sampling of what’s in the bill, we know that these three policies alone will go a long way in helping to turn the tide on ocean plastics. In October, Ocean Conservancy published the Plastics Policy Playbook, a culmination of a year of research into various solutions available to address the ocean plastics crisis in some of the places around the world most impacted by it. We found that implementing EPR schemes, together with recycled content standards, were the two most effective ways of improving waste management systems, and that bans on certain items were imperative to keep plastics out of the environment and our ocean.
Critics of the bill might argue that it is too overreaching. Some will contend that the United States isn’t the problem – that most of the plastics entering the ocean come from developing countries. But let me nip those arguments in the bud right now. The ocean plastics crisis is a crisis, and like the ocean, it impacts all of us. The best available science puts the United States as a top 20 contributor to ocean plastic pollution – and that ranking does not take into account that until recently the U.S. exported a majority of our plastic waste to countries that simply could not manage it all. Scientists are currently evaluating new numbers regarding the U.S.’ contribution to the plastic pollution crisis, and it’s likely that our role is far worse than we’ve realized so far. We must do better.
The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act will put us on track to do just that – to do better for our ocean, and the communities, economies and wildlife that depend on it. Thank you to Sen. Udall and Rep. Lowenthal for boldly tackling this complicated and pressing issue. This bill is strong because it draws on the expertise of those that have worked in the space for decades. It could be a new chapter in the story of ocean plastic pollution, and we hope their colleagues in Congress choose to turn the page.
Janis Searles Jones is CEO of Ocean Conservancy.