The Ocean Plastic Pollution Problem: Solvable with Science, Innovation, and Education

2019-08-23T09:47:00+00:00 June 18, 2018|

Photo credit: Allison Hays/Consortium for Ocean Leadership

From: Ocean News Weekly/ By: Ocean Leadership Staff 

What It Was

The Consortium for Ocean Leadership, in conjunction with the House Oceans Caucus (chaired by Representatives Suzanne Bonamici (OR-1) and Don Young (AK-At-Large)), sponsored a congressional briefing titled, “The Ocean Plastic Pollution Problem: Solvable with Science, Innovation, and Education.”

 Why It Matters

Plastic has helped make our lives more convenient, transportable, and safe thanks to innovation and incorporation of the material in cars, medical equipment, packaging, and clothes. However, the growing use of single-use plastics (SUPs) and improper disposal of plastics (e.g., not recycling, littering) are hazardous to the environment and our economy. Every year eight million tons of plastic end up in the ocean; impacts range from trash-covered ecosystems jeopardizing ocean health and tourism to plastic-filled fish threatening the health and safety of our seafood. Working across stakeholder groups and leveraging science, innovation, and education are essential to solve to problem.

 Key Points

Trash in the ocean is a growing problem. House Oceans Caucus Co-Chair, Representative Suzanne Bonamici (OR-1) stated that “every minute [the equivalent of] one garbage truck of trash is entering the ocean.” Plastic trash in the environment is particularly detrimental due to plastic’s inherent durability and resistance to biological break down as well as to the product’s ability to leach chemicals into the body or water. Unfortunately, current estimates project 155 million tons of plastic in the ocean by 2025.

Experts from academia, aquaria, and industry emphasized that plastics in the environment is not an industry issue but a consumer problem resulting from bad behavior (e.g., littering, lack of recycling, over-use of SUPs). It often enters the ocean from overflowing trash and recycling bins or because waste containers are not readily available.

While plastic pollution is regularly reported on in the media, the problem remains relatively understudied by the scientific community, in part due to the size of the ocean. Researchers know plastic is present in many different areas, including the Arctic and Marianas Trench, but are unable to quantify the total volume or to say what impact microplastics (plastic smaller than 5 millimeters) have on plankton (the bulk of the marine environment). Dr. Jay Brandes (Professor; Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, University of Georgia) reported that microplastic pollution varies widely, with high concentration areas often adjacent to low concentration areas, and cautioned that understanding dynamics in one area does not translate across the globe. He stressed that including citizen scientists (engaged citizens trained by scientists to collect samples) in research could help gather more data across the world.

Mr. John Racanelli (President and CEO, National Aquarium) spoke on the National Aquarium’s involvement in the Aquarium Conservation Partnership, a campaign to reduce SUP pollution. He addressed the value of plastics in our daily lives, attested to the public’s interests in the topic, and underlined the critical role education centers (e.g., aquariums, museums, zoos) can play in translating solutions. He further stressed the need for cohesive messaging (e.g., straw campaigns) and collaboration.

Mr. Scott DeFife (Vice President of Government Affairs, Plastics Industry Association) underscored that outdated waste management infrastructure and confusing recycling restrictions exacerbate pollution. He explained that a wide range of plastics are recyclable (including plastic wrap, thanks to advances in chemical science), but most waste management centers lack equipment to process the entire array of plastic resins (the number codes on the bottom of packaging). A center’s infrastructure restricts the resins that can be processed and in turn what the consumer can recycle; this is the reason some products are accepted in one zip code but not another. He recommended consumer education on mixed recycling, improvements to infrastructure (e.g., increase public recycling bins, update sorting machinery at material recovery facilities), and continued research and scientific innovations to improve the recyclability of plastic products.

Audience questions ranged from health impacts and how to talk about the issue in non-coastal states to a reduction in consumer recycling and plastic alternatives for the fishing industry. Mr. John Racanelli stated, “everyone is downstream from someone,” explaining that plastic in the environment effects everyone.

Other solutions discussed by the panel included increasing the volume of plastics recycled, simplifying the recycling process for consumers, developing chemical recycling and solvent extraction methods, and utilizing reusable alternatives (e.g., refillable water bottle, metal straws, cloth grocery bags) when possible. Ms. Lori Arguelles (President and CEO, Alice Ferguson Foundation) underscored the importance for all stakeholders (e.g., industry, academia, government, philanthropy, NGO, aquaria, the public) to work together on solutions, the need to address the issue at all levels (e.g., local, state, federal, global), and the difference each individual can make. All panelists agreed that while more time, money, and research is needed to understand the problem, the solutions should start now and involve everyone.


“We need to invest in research and resources to address the ocean plastic problem.” –House Oceans Caucus Co-Chair Suzanne Bonamici (OR-1)

“Recycling is an infrastructure issue…the waste management process needs help.” – Mr. Scott DeFife, Vice President of Government Affairs, Plastics Industry Association

“If we can cut down on the source [of plastic into the environment] nature will do a good job cutting down on the presence…we’ve seen that bacteria can break down some plastics.” – Dr. Jay Brandes, Professor; Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, University of Georgia

“There are extremely useful products in plastics, and they are here to stay. We need to work with industry to minimize single-use plastics and change human behavior.” – Mr. John Racanelli, President and CEO, National Aquarium

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