Our Plastic Ocean

2019-08-22T16:51:13+00:00 October 1, 2018|

From: Ocean News Weekly/ By: Ocean Leadership Staff 

What It Was

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing titled, “Cleaning Up the Oceans: How to Reduce the Impact of Man-Made Trash on the Environment, Wildlife, and Human Health?”

Why It Matters

Plastic is used in countless products — from clothes to cars to medicine — that add convenience, comfort, and safety to our everyday lives. Due to improper waste management practices and the growing number of single-use plastics; however, large masses of these items have entered the world’s ocean. It is estimated that approximately eight million tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year, threatening human health, the economy, and wildlife.

Key Points

“Experts believe that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish, by weight,” Chairman John Barrasso (WY) stated in his opening remarks. Senators and witnesses echoed this sentiment throughout the hearing and agreed that plastic pollution is an imminent global crisis.

While some senators blamed Asian countries for most of the plastic pollution in the ocean, Ranking Member Thomas Carper (DE) emphasized that the United States needs to invest in better waste management and recycling infrastructure. The Honorable Cal Dooley (President and Chief Executive Officer, American Chemistry Council) supported a proposal to incentivize recycling, pointing out that when communities increase the value of recycling, more people participate.

The impact of plastic pollution on human health was a major topic of discussion, as microplastics (pieces of plastic less than five millimeters long) are entering our food chain and drinking water. Additionally, Dr. Jonathan Baillie (Executive Vice President and Chief Scientist, National Geographic Society) described how pollutants adhere to plastics. This can cause problems in the organisms that consume them; however, the full implications of nanoplastic (pieces of plastic less than 100 billionths of a meter that are created as microplastics degrade) ingestion is unknown. Their miniscule size makes them impossible to trace in seafood humans consume, but there is concern that these tiny nanoplastics, which can penetrate cells and move into tissues and organs, pose a risk to human health.

When asked about promising ideas and areas of innovation for reducing and cleaning up plastic pollution, witnesses suggested the United States start with simple ideas, such as recycling more, studying new biodegradable products, and enacting a national ban on plastic straws. Dr. Kara Law (Research Professor of Oceanography, Sea Education Association) pointed out it is extremely difficult to physically collect micro- and nanoplastics and shared how simple preventative measures, like placing lids on public garbage cans so trash doesn’t blow away, can help. Mr. Bruce Karas (Vice President of Environment and Sustainability, Coca-Cola North America) suggested an area in need of innovation is how to create packaging that can be better recycled and recovered for a more “circular economy” within plastic products.

Senators Dan Sullivan (AK) and Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), sponsors of the Save Our Seas (SOS) Act (S. 3508), which passed both chambers last week, shared how they plan to continue their work in combatting marine debris with a follow-up bill. The SOS Act reauthorizes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program while also calling on the State Department and other federal agencies to promote international action to reduce marine debris.


“The prevalence of marine debris on our shores is a chronic issue. As noted, marine debris results from a number of man-made sources, including derelict fishing gear, poor solid waste management practices, major storms events, and everyday litter, but as the chairman mentioned, this is a preventable issue.” — Senator Dan Sullivan (AK)

“The problem of plastics is global. It is visible and it’s harmful, but it’s also solvable.” — Dr. Jonathan Baillie (Executive Vice President and Chief Scientist, National Geographic Society)

“We recognize that although we are a part of the problem, we cannot solve the packaging waste problem alone. It is for that reason we have created, established, joined, and expanded cross-sectoral partnerships around the world. We intent to do all of this not just in a cross-sector way but in a scalable way that drives systemic change — to do so will take catalytic funding.” — Mr. Bruce Karas (Vice President of Environment and Sustainability, Coca-Cola North America)

“The most effective way to reduce the impacts of plastic debris on wildlife and the marine environment is to prevent plastics from becoming ocean debris in the first place. This can only be accomplished by first understanding the origins of the debris and the pathways by which it enters the ocean. Plastics can enter the environment at any point in their life cycle, starting from losses of industrial resin pellets (the material feedstock for plastic products), to accidental loss during product use, such as with fishing and aquaculture gear, to accidental or deliberate discard of plastic waste into the environment.” — Dr. Kara Law (Research Professor of Oceanography, Sea Education Association)

Find Out More

Watch the full hearing

Related coverage from the Consortium for Ocean Leadership

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