Disentangling Marine Plastic Pollution

2019-09-23T15:10:13+00:00 September 23, 2019|
A beach is covered with marine debris. (Photo credit: (Susan White/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Wikimedia Commons)

A beach is covered with marine debris. (Photo credit: (Susan White/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Wikimedia Commons)

From: Ocean News Weekly/ By: Ocean Leadership Staff 

What It Was

The House Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies held a hearing titled, “Marine Debris: Impacts on Ecosystems and Species.”

Why It Matters

The world’s ocean is facing many different challenges, but one that has been coming increasingly into the spotlight is marine debris, specifically plastics. Each year, an estimated 17.6 billion pounds of plastic enters the marine environment, causing environmental and economic damage. Solving this global crisis will require a variety of solutions.

Key Points

The subcommittee sought to gain a better understanding of the complexities of the marine debris issue, its widespread impacts, and the role federal agencies and Congress should play in helping resolve this challenge, particularly regarding funding. Both witnesses and subcommittee members agreed on the need for diverse solutions that work in tandem with each other.

Witnesses described how marine debris is an intricate issue due to several factors: variability of types of plastic and ocean conditions; rising rates of pollution; and the multilayered impacts on individuals, habitats, and food webs. Known impacts of ocean plastics are numerous and include direct effects, such as entanglement of marine life in derelict fishing gear, and indirect influences, such as the change in quantity and quality of light. Witnesses were certain increased research would only uncover more consequences of plastic pollution, ranging from unanswered questions regarding microplastics to connections between freshwater and marine environments (particularly in the Great Lakes) to the role of plastics as a vector for the spread of invasive species.

Chairwoman Betty McCollum (MN-4) asked for input on the types of funding needed to address the problem. Mr. Stephen Guertin (Deputy Director for Program Management/Policy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) and Ms. Anne Kinsinger (Associate Director Ecosystems Mission Area, U.S. Geological Survey) agreed the current system of only gaining additional funding for activities such as clean up in the event of extreme weather was no longer sufficient. Instead, as suggested by several subcommittee members, they felt a line item or other quantification in the budget framework would be more effective in combating marine debris on several levels.

Panel members sought ideas on what specific areas of research Congress should support. Answers included standardizing measurements and definitions for contaminants to set baselines, make comparisons, and ensure replicability for experiments around the world and studying the human health impacts of microplastics, such as their presence in drinking water and seafood (including possible chemical contamination).

Members and witnesses also discussed other areas where federal funding could help with the problem, including global collaboration initiatives, education and outreach projects, and both new and existing federal programs. Ms. Christy Leavitt (Plastics Campaign Director, Oceana) called for policy changes at the local, state, and federal levels requiring companies to reduce plastic production and use. Both Dr. Chelsea Rochman (Scientific Advisor, Ocean Conservancy and Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto) and Ms. Leavitt cited the success of the microbead ban as a guide for future federal policy. Witnesses also encouraged investment of energy and resources in the Environmental Protection Agency Trash Free Seas program, the NOAA Marine Debris Program, and the Interagency Marine Debris Coordinating Committee.


“The impacts of marine debris will require all of us working together to improve coastal waste management, identify probable sources of this pollution, understand the method of transport, and devise creative solutions and mitigation strategies to fix this global trash problem.” — Chairwoman Betty McCollum (MN-4)

“It is through science that we will prioritize what to do first, but U.S. investment in the study of microplastic effects on marine organisms is grossly inadequate considering the challenges we are facing. U.S. investment in social sciences is grossly inadequate considering human behavior and economics are so important in charting a sustainable way forward for the management of plastic debris.” — Dr. Patricia Matrai (Senior Research Scientist, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences)

“As we develop policies aimed at plastic pollution, we must be mindful that sources of plastic pollution are diverse, and the policies to address them must therefore include unique considerations for microplastics and macroplastics. We cannot make the mistake of assuming that one policy intervention will fix all aspects of the problem.” — Dr. Chelsea Rochman (Scientific Advisor, Ocean Conservancy and Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto)

Related Coverage from the Consortium for Ocean Leadership

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