Plastic pollution in the ocean is a global problem and the United States is the main source
Plastic pollution of all shapes and sizes permeates the world’s oceans. It appears on beaches, in fish and even in arctic sea ice. And a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine makes it clear that the United States is a big part of the problem.
As the report shows, the United States produces a large portion of the global supply of plastic resin – the precursor material for all industrial and consumer plastic products. It also imports and exports billions of dollars worth of plastic products each year.
On a per capita basis, the United States produces an order of magnitude more plastic waste than China – a nation often vilified by pollution problems. These findings are based on a study published in 2020 which concluded that the United States is the world’s largest source of plastic waste, including plastics shipped to other countries which are then mismanaged.
And only a small fraction of the plastic in U.S. household waste streams is recycled. The study calls current US recycling systems “grossly insufficient to handle the diversity, complexity and amount of plastic waste.”
As scientists studying the effects of plastic pollution on marine ecosystems, we see this report as an important first step on a long road to reducing plastic pollution in the oceans. While it’s important to clarify how the United States contributes to ocean plastic waste, we see a need for specific and achievable goals and recommendations to alleviate the plastic pollution crisis, and we wish the report had gone. further in that direction.
Plastic appears in seafood
Researchers began documenting marine plastic pollution in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Public and scientific interest in the issue skyrocketed in the early 2000s after oceanographer Charles Moore drew attention to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a region in the central North Pacific where ocean currents concentrate floating plastic waste in rotating collections thousands of miles across.
More plastic waste patches have now been found in the South Pacific, North and South Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Unsurprisingly, plastic permeates marine food webs. More than 700 marine species are known to ingest plastic, including more than 200 species of fish that humans eat.
Humans also consume plastic which breaks up in drinks and food from packaging and inhales microplastic particles in house dust. Scientists are only beginning to assess what this means for public health. Research to date suggests that exposure to chemicals associated with plastic can interfere with hormones that regulate many processes in our bodies, cause developmental problems in children, or alter human metabolic processes in a way that promotes cancer. obesity.
A need for a national strategy
The new report is a science-based overview of marine plastic pollution. However, many of its conclusions and recommendations have been offered in various forms over the years and, in our view, the report could have done more to advance these discussions.
For example, he strongly recommends developing a national marine debris monitoring program, led by the Marine Debris Program of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. We agree with this proposal, but the report does not specify what to monitor, how to do it or what the specific objectives of monitoring should be.
Ideally, we believe the federal government should create a coalition of competent agencies, such as NOAA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Institutes of Health, to tackle plastic pollution. Agencies have done so in the past in response to acute pollution events, such as the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, but not for chronic issues like marine debris. The report also proposes an intergovernmental effort but does not provide details.
Plastic pollution is an underfunded problem
Actions to detect, track and eliminate plastic waste from the ocean will require substantial financial support. But there is little federal funding for research and cleanup of marine debris. In 2020, for example, the budget request for NOAA’s marine debris program was $ 7 million, which is 0.1% of NOAA’s 2020 budget of $ 5.65 billion. The proposed funding for the marine debris program has increased by $ 9 million for fiscal year 2022, which is a step in the right direction.
Even so, making progress on ocean plastic litter will require significantly more funding for academic research, non-governmental organizations, and NOAA’s marine debris activities. Increased support for these programs will help fill knowledge gaps, increase public awareness and stimulate effective action throughout the plastics lifecycle.
Corporate responsibility and fairness
The private sector also has a crucial role to play in reducing plastic use and waste. We would have liked to see more discussion in the report on how businesses and industries are contributing to the buildup of plastic waste in the oceans and their role in solutions.
The report rightly notes that plastic pollution is a matter of environmental justice. Minority and low-income communities are disproportionately affected by many activities that produce plastic waste, from emissions from oil drilling to toxic chemicals released during the production or incineration of plastics. Some of the report’s proposals, such as better waste management and increased recycling, may benefit these communities – but only if they are directly involved in their planning and implementation.
The study also highlights the need to produce less plastic and step up efficient plastic recycling. Increased public and private funding for solutions such as reusable and refillable containers, reduced packaging and standardized plastic recycling processes would increase the opportunities for consumers to move away from single-use disposables.
Plastic pollution threatens the world’s oceans. It also presents direct and indirect risks to human health. We hope the bipartisan support this study has received is a sign that U.S. leaders are prepared to take far-reaching action on this critical environmental issue.
This article was written by several authors: Matthew Savoca, postdoctoral researcher, Stanford University; Anna Robuck, Postdoctoral Fellow, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Lauren Kashiwabara, Masters student in Biological Sciences, University of the Pacific. It is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.