Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: No Longer Enough To Combat Plastic Pollution?

2019-11-05T13:46:35+00:00 November 4, 2019|

Divers engaged in cutting net debris Photo Credit: Dr. Dwayne Meadows, NOAA/NMFS/OPR

From: Ocean News Weekly/ By: Ocean Leadership Staff 

What it was

The House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife held a hearing titled “A Sea of Problems: Impacts of Plastic Pollution on Oceans and Wildlife.”

Why it Matters

Plastic has become ubiquitous in our daily lives; however, growing numbers of single-use products and improper waste management practices have created a world where plastics, from microplastics to fishing nets and bottles, threaten ocean health. It is estimated that approximately 6.4 billion metric tons of the cumulative 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic produced since 1950 has become waste. While education and awareness of issues associated with plastic pollution have increased, the federal government and other stakeholders are still trying to determine the best strategies for solving the problem of ocean plastics moving forward.

Key Points

Members sought to identify how Congress can best support or prioritize research, cleanup, or prevention efforts to combat plastic pollution. All acknowledged the severity of the issue and expressed a shared desire to keep plastic waste out of the ocean due to negative consequences on marine life, climate, and human health.

However, there was disagreement in how to best address the issue. Ranking Member Tom McClintock (CA-4) and Mr. Tony Radoszewski (President and CEO, Plastics Industry Association) suggested that efforts should focus less on limiting production and changing consumer behavior, and more on rectifying issues of waste management. Mr. Radoszewski explained that development and production of lightweight, durable, and flexible plastic goods has provided strong value and performance for diverse applications, from food packaging and sterile hospital supplies to pipes, cars, and trucks. They described several negative consequences of stopping production and use, particularly lower quality of life, higher costs, the lack of suitable alternatives, and associated negative environmental impacts (e.g., increased energy to make aluminum and use of trees for cardboard and paper). Both were clear that environmental issues only come into play when plastic is not properly disposed of (e.g., put in a landfill, incinerated, or recycled), and Mr. Radoszewski described innovative technologies being developed by the plastics industry for proper disposal or reuse.

Chairman Lowenthal and other witnesses contended that waste management is not enough and had suggestions for how Congress could help. According to Dr. Jenna Jambeck (Professor of Environmental Engineering, University of Georgia), globally, on average only about nine percent of plastics have been recycled. She advocated for several roles for Congress, including continued or increased funding for agencies that work on issues related to ocean plastics, promoting both domestic and international initiatives to combat marine debris, and supporting legislation to reduce waste generation. Mr. Ted Danson (Actor, Advocate, and Board Member; Oceana) called for comprehensive federal action to hold companies responsible and support cities, counties, and states working to reduce single use plastics.

There was also disagreement over the role of American consumers, with the ranking member absolving them of responsibility for the majority of global ocean plastic and Dr. Jambeck explaining that the United States is a major global contributor to the problem due to U.S reliance on exporting waste to countries with developing economies that are lagging in waste management infrastructure. She also noted that American per-person waste generation is two to six times the waste generation rate of many countries around the world.

What’s Next

Acting Chairman Lowenthal announced he and Senator Tom Udall (NM) will soon introduce a discussion draft of comprehensive legislation to tackle plastic waste issues, including measures such as phasing out single-use items that have sustainable alternatives, putting in place an extended producer responsibility program, and implementing recycling content standards.

Quotable

“It’s clear that we need to reduce plastic pollution. Higher recycling commitments and bans and taxes on single use plastic items can be part of the solution, but we must expand our tools to address this growing environmental and public health problem.” — Acting Chairman Alan Lowenthal (CA-47)

“American consumers go to great lengths to responsibly dispose of plastic waste and the numbers show that. American consumers are heroes, not villains in this fight against the plastic pollution of our oceans, we should be celebrating them and not punishing them.” — Ranking Member Tom McClintock (CA-4)

“Don’t fall for the false promise of recycling and don’t stoop to incineration. We must stop the runaway increase in plastic production and reduce the amount of plastic companies are making and foisting on us, because it will last for centuries. We have no more time to waste.” — Mr. Ted Danson (Actor, Advocate, and Board Member, Oceana)

“It is vital that community voices be heard at the decision-making table, these are the daily decisions that can drastically alter the outcomes for generations to come. Legislation and policies that safeguard our already overburdened is necessary for our survival. You don’t have to lose a child, mother or friend to understand our fight for life.” — Juan Parras (Founder and Executive director of the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services)

“Plastics are among humankind’s greatest innovations and they’ve delivered an enormous benefit to public health and commerce all over the world. We need to learn how to live with these materials, because I can assure you, we would never want to have to live without them.” — Mr. Tony Radoszewski (President and CEO of the Plastics Industry Association)

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