“In this sense, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is, in the end, merely the most dramatic outward symptom of a far deeper problem of enormous volumes of human waste reaching places where it was never intended to be.” – Chris Mooney, 2018
Last March, scientists published evidence that seventy-nine thousand tons of plastic currently inhabit an area three times the size of France in the Pacific Ocean. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, as it is known, had been previously discovered, but this new research demonstrates that the extent of the patch is growing exponentially.
Marine plastic litter is the 21st century’s plague and newest research on the extent of this issue could be the final call for help. According to the World Economic Forum, one garbage truck filled with plastic leaks into the ocean every minute, leading to immense environmental damages – in fact, almost 600 marine species are affected by plastics through ingestion and habitat degradation. However, if the environment doesn’t quite concern you, don’t turn away just yet, the problem is not just environmental. Recent studies have demonstrated that micro-plastics and their toxins bio-accumulate in marine organisms, eventually reaching our dinner plates and affecting our health.
The issue of marine plastic pollution is globally recognized. The United Nations has named it one of the most important threats facing the marine environment. This resulted in the creation of the the Clean Seas Campaign last year, which seeks to engage the public, governments and industries in reducing marine plastic pollution. By December, almost 200 countries had committed to the campaign – the United States has not committed to this global effort.
Internationally, the United States has played a minimal role in responding to this call for help. Nationally, existing regulations such as the Clean Water Act, Superfund (CERCLA), the Pollution Prevention Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act have been used as tools to reduce plastic litter. The Clean Water Act, for instance, allows governments to establish Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) of trash that can enter water bodies. Furthermore, the Pollution Prevention Act focuses industry attention on reducing the amount of pollution that comes from production and operation processes.
It is evident, though, that the United States needs to do more nationally if it wishes to remain a global leader, especially given that the United States the 20th largest contributor to marine plastic pollution.
Given that almost 80% of all global marine pollution originates from land based sources, the United States must work to create a circular economy nationally. In 2016, the European Commission successfully committed to a strategy on “Plastics in the Circular Economy” that extended producer responsibility for single-use plastics, increased transparency and labeling of chemicals contained in plastics, promoted investments in waste management, and increased economic incentives to end the production of single-use plastics. The United States must develop a similar strategy at the federal level and encourage states to develop local action-based strategies to promote a shift to a circular economy, where plastics are not designed to be single-use. It’s estimated that between $80-120 billion USD are lost annually when plastics are used only once. Thus, limiting the amount of plastic that is produced for one-time use could not only limit the amount of plastics entering ocean ecosystems, but could also bring economic opportunities through the creation of secondary markets. The United States must work to create a ‘closed loop’ in the production and consumption of plastic by creating a market for the management and recovery of waste and by increasing recycling efforts. However, given that only 9% of all plastic waste is recycled in the United States, there is little evidence that the country is currently working towards these goals.
A country of plastic is floating in our ocean. It’s time we start realizing that our future is contingent on the future of our planet, and it’s time we see this kind of knowledge reflected in decisions taken by the politicians we chose to represent us.