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Sight Magazine – Essay: Plastic waste in the ocean is a global problem, and the US is the main source – new report calls for action

By on December 7, 2021 0

Plastic waste of all shapes and sizes permeates the world’s oceans. It appears on beaches, in fish and even in arctic sea ice. And one 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 results 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 plastic in US household waste streams is recycled. The study calls current US recycling systems “largely insufficient to manage the diversity, complexity and quantity of plastic waste “.

A plastic cup and straw floating in the waters off New York City, United States. PHOTO: Brian Yurasits / Unsplash.

As scientists who study the effects of plastic pollution to Marine ecosystems, we see this report as an important first step on a long road to reducing plastic pollution in the oceans. While it is important to clarify how the United States contributes to plastic waste in the oceans, 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 is emerging in seafood
Researchers have started to document marine plastic pollution in the late 60s and early 1970s. Public and scientific interest in the issue exploded in the early 2000s after oceanographer Charles Moore drew attention to the Large Pacific Waste Zone – a region in the central North Pacific where ocean currents concentrate floating plastic waste in rotating collections thousands of kilometers in diameter.

“More and more plastic waste has 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 over 200 species of fish that humans eat. “

More pieces of plastic garbage have now been found in the South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. Unsurprisingly, plastic permeates marine food webs. Over 700 marine species are known to ingest plastic, including over 200 species of fish that humans eat.

Humans also consume plastic which fragments in drinks and food packaging and inhaling 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 may interfere with hormones that regulate many processes in our body, cause developmental problems in children, Where alter human metabolic processes in ways that promote 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 National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Marine debris program. 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 this in the past in response to acute pollution events, such as the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but not for chronic problems like marine debris. The report also proposes an intergovernmental effort but does not provide details.

Plastic collection Surfrider Foundation

In 2019, volunteers from the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation removed nearly 300,000 pounds of trash from American beaches, almost all of it plastic. PHOTO: Surfrider Foundation, CC BY-ND

A problem of underfunding
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 $ US7 million, which is 0.1% of NOAA’s $ 5.65 billion 2020 budget. Funding proposed for the marine debris program increased by US $ 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.

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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 generate plastic waste, oil drilling emissions 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 that the bipartite support this study received is a sign that America’s leaders are ready to take far-reaching action on this critical environmental issue.The conversation

Matthieu savoca is a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University; Anna robuck is a postdoctoral researcher at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Lauren Kashiwabara is a master’s student in biological sciences at the University of the Pacific. This article is republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read it original article.

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