Marine Plastic Pollution

Joan M. Bondareff and Dana S. Merkel

Joan M. BondareffAs the inveterate pundit Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” This could very well be said for our disposable society, which uses and disposes tons of plastic in ways that are not wise and negatively impact the health of our oceans and sea life within. Although many reports focus on larger plastics, microplastics, which go largely unnoticed, are also wreaking havoc on our oceans. Microplastics are small pieces of plastic that come from a variety of sources, both from degradation of larger plastics and from tiny manufactured plastics that are added to many health and beauty products as exfoliants. Recent surveys by Australian scientists estimate that there are at least 14 million tons of microplastics on the ocean floor, with higher concentrations where plastics accumulate at the surface of the water. 

Finding a Solution

Scientists are working hard to find a solution to the plastic problem—particularly the fact that plastic never completely breaks down, but rather only breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. A number of new and interesting ideas have been proposed, such as plastic-eating caterpillars and super enzymes. However, until we have a better system for breaking up plastics harmlessly, we need to develop plans for reducing and recovering marine plastic waste.  

Internationally, many countries have begun to take action to address the mounting problem of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. Single-use plastics are banned in varying degrees in a host of countries worldwide in an effort to reduce plastic waste. A number of efforts have been underway for years now to find a way to effectively collect floating garbage in the world’s oceans. 

The Marine Debris Act established the Interagency Marine Debris Coordinating Committee in 2006, which coordinates marine debris research and related activities among U.S. federal agencies and is chaired by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”). Separately, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) encourages and provides technical and financial support for efforts to educate and prevent or recover trash from U.S. waters via its Trash-Free Waters Projects. The EPA also participates in several international forums on marine debris prevention and reduction, and has partnered with countries in the Caribbean region to extend its Trash-Free Waters program. Environmental associations, such as the North American Marine Environment Protection Association, have also been working to organize beach cleanups and educate the public about the importance of reducing plastic use and recycling or otherwise disposing of plastic properly. 

Some U.S. ports are taking measures to clean up or prevent garbage from reaching U.S. waterways. Flotsam and Jetsam, two manned 26-foot boats, cruise the Cleveland Harbor and Cuyahoga River removing trash and debris from the water daily. The Port of Baltimore’s trash interceptors, affectionately known as Mr. Trash Wheel, Professor Trash Wheel, and Captain Trash Wheel, use containment booms to funnel garbage flowing from outfalls to the interceptor, where the trash is collected. 

Legislative Efforts

Congress has also taken notice of the exponentially growing problem of plastics in the world’s oceans and the public’s increasing concern on the issue. A bipartisan group of members of Congress, leaders of the Oceans Caucus, recently passed legislation called Save Our Seas Act 2.0 (S.1982). The House of Representatives passed S.1982, with an amendment, on October 1, 2020. On December 1, 2020, the Senate passed the House version by unanimous consent—clearing the bill for President Trump’s signature.

The bipartisan House and Senate co-chairs of the Oceans Caucus have been working on marine debris legislation for the last two years. The House co-chairs are Don Young (R-AK) and Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR). The Senate co-chairs and principal sponsors are Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Dan Sullivan (R-AK), and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI). Save Our Seas 2.0 builds on legislation enacted in the prior Congress, Save Our Seas 1.0 (Pub.L. 115-265), and expands its scope to include the following key provisions, as reported by its House sponsor, Rep. Don Young:

    1. Establishing a Marine Debris Trust Fund for the NOAA to use in responding to marine debris events;
    2. Creating a Marine Debris Foundation to encourage, accept, and administer private gifts to help with the NOAA Marine Debris Program;
    3. Authorizing a prize competition—the “Genius Prize for Save Our Seas Innovations”—to advance innovation in the removal and prevention of plastic waste;
    4. Directing federal agencies to work with foreign governments to improve waste management systems;
    5. Requiring the secretary of state to report to Congress on the potential for a new international agreement focused on marine debris and including the topic of marine debris in all international agreements;
    6. Directing the EPA to develop a strategy to improve waste management and recycling infrastructure, harmonize waste collection and recycling protocols, strengthen markets for recycled plastic, and identify barriers to increasing the collection of recyclable materials; and
    7. Creating under the EPA a Post-Consumer Materials Management Infrastructure Grant Program, Drinking Water Infrastructure Grant Program, Wastewater Infrastructure Grant Program, and Trash-Free Waters Grant Program to assist local waste management authorities.

As Rep. Young explained, “[e]very minute, the equivalent of a garbage truck full of plastic is dumped into our ocean. According to the United Nations, that is more than eight million metric tons a year. The bipartisan Save Our Seas Act 2.0 will address the staggering amount of plastic in the ocean by improving the domestic cleanup and response to marine debris, incentivizing international engagement on the issue, and strengthening domestic infrastructure to responsibly dispose waste materials.”

Rep. Bonamici further stressed that a single bill cannot solve the problem. Rather, we have to “fundamentally change our reliance on plastic.” The Senate co-sponsors applauded the House action and promised to get the bill passed in the Senate and onto President Trump’s desk for signature. Notably, Sen. Sullivan stated on House passage of S.1982, “I look forward to Save Our Seas Act 2.0 passing the Senate and moving onto the President’s desk for his signature, and continuing work on this important issue.” The Senate took up the charge and passed the bill on December 1, 2020.

The next steps for Save Our Seas Act 2.0 will be President Trump’s signature of the bill into law, enacting appropriations and agency implementation. Finally, one small step for cleaning up our oceans from marine debris.

This article is one in a series of articles written for Blank Rome’s MAINBRACE: December 2020 edition.

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