Plastic waste in all shapes and sizes permeates the world’s oceans. It will appear 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 US is a big part of the problem.
As the report shows, the United States produces a large part of the world’s supply of synthetic resin – the starting material for all plastic industrial and consumer goods. It also imports and exports billions of dollars worth of plastic products every year.
On a per capita basis, the US produces an order of magnitude more plastic waste than China – a nation often demonized for its pollution problems. These findings build on a study published in 2020 that concluded that the U.S. largest global source of plastic wasteincluding plastics shipped to other countries that are later mishandled.
and only a small fraction the plastic in US household waste is recycled. The study names current US recycling systems “grossly insufficient to cope with the variety, complexity and amount of plastic waste. “
As a scientist who the Effects of plastic pollution At marine Ecosystems, we consider this report an important first step in a long road to reducing plastic pollution in the oceans. While it is important to show how the US is contributing to plastic waste in the oceans, we see the need for concrete, actionable goals and recommendations to contain the plastic pollution crisis, and we would have liked the report to go further in this direction.
Plastic appears in seafood
Researchers began documenting ocean plastic pollution in the United States Late 1960s and Early 1970s. Public and scientific interest in the subject exploded after the early 2000s Oceanographer Charles Moore drew attention to it Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a region in the central North Pacific where ocean currents concentrate floating plastic debris into spinning collections thousands of miles in diameter.
Now more plastic garbage stains have been found in South Pacific, North and South Atlantic and Indian Ocean. Unsurprisingly, plastic pervades the ocean’s food webs. Over 700 marine species are known to pick up plastic, including over 200 species of fish that humans eat.
Humans also consume plastic, that Fragments for drinks and food from packaging and Inhale microplastic particles in house dust. Scientists are only just beginning to assess what this means for public health. Research so far suggests that exposure to plastic-associated chemicals may be disrupt hormones that regulate many processes in our body, cause developmental problems in children, or modify human metabolic processes in such a way that obesity is promoted
Need for a national strategy
The new report is a comprehensive, science-based overview of marine plastic pollution. However, many of its conclusions and recommendations have been proposed in various forms for years and we believe the report could have taken these discussions further.
For example, it is highly recommended that a national marine litter monitoring program be developed by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. is directed Marine Litter Program. We agree with this proposal, but the report does not go into what should be monitored, how it should be done or what the specific objectives of the monitoring should be.
We believe the federal government should ideally form a coalition of relevant agencies like 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 incidents such as 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spillbut not for chronic problems like marine litter. The report also suggests intergovernmental efforts but does not provide details.
An underfunded problem
Actions to track, trace and remove plastic waste from the oceans require significant financial support. But there is little federal funding for marine litter research and cleaning up. In 2020, for example, the budget request for the Marine Debris Program was NOAA $ 7 million, which is 0.1% of the NOAA budget of $ 5.65 billion for 2020. Proposed funding for the Marine Debris Program increased by $ 9 million for fiscal 2022which is a step in the right direction.
Still, advances in ocean plastic waste will require significantly more funding for academic research, non-governmental organizations, and NOAA’s marine litter activities. Increased support for these programs will help fill knowledge gaps, raise public awareness and stimulate effective action across the life cycle of plastics.
Corporate responsibility and equity
The private sector also plays a crucial role in reducing plastic use and waste. We would have liked more discussion in the report about how companies and industries contribute to the accumulation of plastic waste in the oceans and what role they play in solutions.
The report rightly states that plastic pollution is an issue of environmental justice. Minorities and low-income communities are disproportionately affected by many activities that produce plastic waste Oil well emissions to toxic chemicals released during the Manufacture or incineration of plastics. Some of the report’s suggestions, such as better waste management and increased recycling, can benefit these communities – but only if they do it directly
The study also highlights the need to produce less plastic and expand effective plastic recycling. More 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 switch away from single-use products.
Plastic pollution threatens the world’s oceans. It also poses direct and indirect risks to human health. we hope that received non-partisan support for this study is a sign that US executives are ready to take far-reaching action on this critical environmental issue.
Matthew Savoca is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University. Anna Robuck is a postdoctoral fellow at the Icahn School of Medicine on Mount Sinai.