Shortcomings of the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act

Ellie Coleman

The Save Our Seas 2.0 Act has been praised as progress in environmental policy, passing with rare bipartisan support in the House and Senate in 2020. At face value this legislation seems as though it will benefit our oceans, however, it may be a false solution to marine debris. This bill targets clean-up of marine debris in our oceans which in theory will be helpful, yet many environmental interest groups argue that cleaning up the plastic post-consumption will not do enough to help the health of the oceans and that it may cause more harm.[1] Plastic should be targeted further upstream in the production process to have a real impact on ocean health.

The Save Our Seas 2.0 Act intends to improve the conditions of the oceans through innovation, research, and debris removal systems.[2] Research and innovation will revolve mostly around plastic debris and finding better alternatives and end uses for it. The act proposes the establishment of the Marine Debris Foundation which will aid NOAA and other entities, such as states and tribal groups, in implementing the policy. They will also administer a Genius Prize for innovation in the realm of decreasing marine debris, may it be degradable packaging and fishing gear alternatives or detection technology for marine debris. The EPA will be tasked with leading states in implementing post-consumer recycling programs to reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in the ocean. While this legislation is well-intentioned and sounds like a step in the right direction for environmental policy, there are likely negative economic, equity, and environmental impacts that may cause more harm to our oceans and society.

2019, after this bill was introduced but before it was passed, a group of about 40 activists and environmental organizations wrote a letter to Congress stating their disagreement with the provisions included.[3] They argued that the bill would not be effective because it targets the clean-up of plastic waste instead of targeting plastic production. They believe plastic should be stopped further upstream before it is produced to make a real difference for the environment. Given that they didn’t agree with the proposed solutions, they also argued that valuable money would be put towards the research of false solutions, wasting time and resources. 

Research published since the passing of this legislation reveals that the letter from environmental organizations was accurate. A study published by Bergmann et al. in 2023 revealed that plastic removal technologies (PRTs), such as those promoted in the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act, can cause more harm than good to the environment.[4] PRTs are currently not evaluated for their efficiency, which is estimated to be low, and environmental impact assessments are rarely completed. The study found that PRTs can be harmful to the environment and surrounding communities through effectiveness, greenwashing, and equity. Once the plastic is removed from the ocean it cannot be easily recycled so it still needs to be stored or disposed of. The plastic debris problem is not effectively solved, it is just moved out of the ocean onto land. Greenwashing is part of the reason the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act was passed with bipartisan support because large industries can invest in PRTs to “offset their emissions” while still producing plastic. One of the signees of the letter to Congress, Brett Hartl, who at the time was the government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, noted that the plastics industry passed this legislation because they did not have to change anything, transferring the blame to the consumer.[5] As plastic gets shifted from the ocean to the land and the blame gets shifted from industries to consumers, equity becomes a concern. Externalized costs tend to harm marginalized communities more.[6] Given that these communities do not have the resources to evaluate the environmental impact of PRTs, industries can more easily place their externalized PRTs in these communities. Additionally, plastic stores on land where ocean plastic is transferred to are more often sited in marginalized neighborhoods. The Bergmann study raises the same concern as mentioned in the opposition letter stating that money, resources, and time put towards these PRT solutions would divert attention from potentially better solutions. 

A more effective approach would involve resolving the marine debris and plastic problem through prevention instead of mitigation.[7] We should look to create new policies that target plastic at the production stage to proactively stop it from ever getting to the ocean. One study suggested a “start and strengthen” program that entails initial caps on plastic production which progress into bans on plastic and incorporation of alternative materials.[8] The caps would first target the most harmful and most easily replaceable types of plastic, allowing time for research into alternative materials for plastics that are harder to replace. This process allows for a gradual elimination of plastic which would in turn reduce downstream marine debris. While the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act has not been the most effective, it may pave the way for future marine policies that target plastic upstream. To truly save our seas we need to be bold in action and stop plastic in its tracks.

[1] “Opposition to Save Our Seas 2.0, Senate Bill 1982,” November 19, 2019,

[2] Dan [R-AK Sen. Sullivan, “S.1982 – 116th Congress (2019-2020): Save Our Seas 2.0 Act,” legislation, December 18, 2020, 2019-06-26,

[3] “Opposition to Save Our Seas 2.0, Senate Bill 1982,” November 19, 2019.

[4] Melanie Bergmann et al., “Moving from Symptom Management to Upstream Plastics Prevention: The Fallacy of Plastic Cleanup Technology,” One Earth 6, no. 11 (November 17, 2023): 1439–42,

[5] Grey Moran, “The House Just Passed Another ‘Save Our Seas’ Act. Here’s Why It Won’t.,” The Intercept, October 7, 2020,

[6] Bergmann et al., “Moving from Symptom Management to Upstream Plastics Prevention.”

[7] Bergmann et al.

[8] “A Binding Global Agreement to Address the Life Cycle of Plastics,” accessed March 26, 2024,

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