Ocean plastic pollution is hazardous waste the US should ban

Ocean plastic pollution is hazardous waste the US should ban
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Plastic garbage collecting in our oceans is hazardous to marine life and public health. In other words, it’s hazardous waste. So it’s time for the federal government to stop ignoring this growing threat, treat single-use plastic products as hazardous waste, and act boldly to block the flow of plastic into our oceans.

France banned most single-use plastic products with a law going into effect in 2020. The throwaway consumer culture in the United States is a far bigger contributor to ocean plastic pollution, which has become so pervasive that plastic is expected to outweigh all the fish in the sea by 2050.

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Our own government needs to take responsibility for the problem, enact a ban on single-use plastic products and begin encouraging our trading partners to take similar steps.

 

We need to start treating ocean plastic pollution as the dire threat that it is — one that will only get worse until we act.

Mounting scientific evidence shows just how pervasive and dangerous plastic pollution has become. It starts with the obvious, visible damage, like the Great Pacific Garbage Dump and other ocean gyres where currents collect plastic waste into vast, dense, disgusting floating landfills.

But the problem extends far beyond what we can see. Microplastics and small plastic bits — many of them attached to toxic pollution molecules and other hazardous substances — are everywhere. Plastic waste now flows from our faucets, lines our beaches and pervades the seafood on our dinner plates.

Small pieces of plastic get mistaken for food and eaten by fish, sea turtles, birds and other wildlife. One study found that plastic waste affected at least 267 marine species, including 43 percent of marine mammal species and 86 percent of sea turtle species. Sea turtles, birds and marine mammals are choking on plastic trash or getting entangled in it.

Researchers just discovered that sea turtle nesting areas in Florida and the rest of the Gulf Coast are so inundated with small bits of plastic that it could be heating up those beaches and threatening sea turtles.

Another recent study found record levels of plastics frozen in Arctic sea ice, much of it the polyethylene commonly found in single-use packaging.

Small plastic bits infuse the seawater in every ocean, where they’re eaten by fish and travel throughout the food web. Large whales examined after they die are often filled with plastic. People who eat seafood can consume thousands of tiny bits of plastic annually.

Last year, testing found microplastics in 83 percent of tap water samples taken around the world. A more recent study found tiny pieces of plastic in 90 percent of bottled water, with some bottles containing as many as 10,000 pieces of plastic per liter.

The federal government finally cracked down on a particularly egregious source of ocean plastic pollution, phasing out the plastic microbeads in beauty products designed to wash down our drains and into the ocean.

But the flow of plastic waste created in the United States is poised to dramatically increase in coming years.

Texas is in the process of approving the world’s biggest plastic plant, a joint venture between Exxon and the Saudi Arabian government that’s slated to receive more than $1 billion in tax breaks. It’s one of over a dozen plastic plants proposed in Texas and Louisiana to turn fracked natural gas into ethylene, the basic building block of cheap plastic products.

Fossil fuel companies are planning to increase global plastic production by more than 40 percent in the coming decade.

So there’s an urgent need for Congress to ensure that plastic doesn’t keep flowing into our plastic-choked oceans. The Toxic Substances Control Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and other federal laws spell out the U.S. obligation to control and properly dispose of toxic chemicals and hazardous waste.

My organization, the Center for Biological Diversity, submitted a legal petition to the Environmental Protection Agency to classify certain plastics as hazardous waste to reduce the threat to the environment and human health. It is still pending before the agency.

Scientists have already recognized that plastic waste is hazardous — it’s time for the federal government to stop ignoring this problem and take action.

Earlier generations fought to phase out the pesticide DDT, asbestos insulation, PCBs, chlorofluorocarbons and other materials found to be harming the environment and human health. Today, plastic is one of the gravest pollutants threatening us. We must demand that our government ban single-use plastics and better protect our oceans.  

Miyoko Sakashita is an attorney and director of the oceans program at the Center for Biological Diversity, a national, nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.