Beat Plastic Pollution

Plastics Trashing Oceans Have Their Biggest Source in US

Plastic waste of all shapes and sizes permeates the world’s oceans. It shows up on beaches, in fish and even in Arctic sea ice. And a new report from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine makes clear that the US is a big part of the problem.

As the report shows, the US produces a large share of the global supply of plastic resin – the precursor material to all plastic industrial and consumer products. 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 vilified over pollution-related issues. These findings build off a study published in 2020 that concluded that the US is the largest global source of plastic waste, including plastics shipped to other countries that later are mismanaged.

And only a small fraction of plastic in US household waste streams is recycled. The study calls current US recycling systems “grossly insufficient to manage the diversity, complexity and quantity of plastic waste.”

As scientists who study the effects of plastic pollution on marine ecosystems, we view this report as an important first step on a long road to reducing ocean plastic pollution. While it’s important to make clear how the US is contributing to ocean plastic waste, we see a need for specific, actionable goals and recommendations to mitigate the plastic pollution crisis, and would have liked to see the report go further in that direction.

Chart: The Conversation, CC BY-ND Source: USEPA

Plastic is showing up in seafood

Researchers started documenting marine plastic pollution in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Public and scientific interest in the issue exploded in the early 2000s after oceanographer Charles Moore drew attention to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a region in the central north Pacific where ocean currents concentrate floating plastic trash into spinning collections thousands of miles across.

More plastic garbage patches have now been found in the South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean. Unsurprisingly, plastic pervades 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 that fragments into beverages and food from packaging and inhale microplastic particles in household dust. Scientists are only beginning to assess what this means for public health. Research to date suggests that exposure to plastic-associated chemicals may interfere with hormones that regulate many processes in our bodies, cause developmental problems in children, or alter human metabolic processes in ways that promote obesity.

A need for a national strategy

The new report is a sweeping overview of marine plastic pollution, grounded in science. However, many of its conclusions and recommendations have been proposed in various forms for years, and in our view the report could have done more to advance those discussions.

For example, it strongly recommends developing a national marine debris monitoring program, led by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program. We agree with this proposal, but the report does not address what to monitor, how to do it or what the specific goals of monitoring should be.

Ideally, we believe the federal government should create a coalition of relevant 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 problems like marine debris. The report proposes a cross-government effort as well but does not provide specifics.

plastics oceans trash
In 2019 volunteers for the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation removed nearly 300,000 pounds of trash from US beaches, nearly all of it plastic. Surfrider Foundation, CC BY-ND

An underfunded problem

Actions to detect, track and remove plastic waste from the ocean will require substantial financial support. But there’s little federal funding for marine debris research and cleanup. In 2020, for example, NOAA’s Marine Debris Program budget request was $US7 million, which represents 0.1% of NOAA’s $5.65B 2020 budget. Proposed funding for the Marine Debris Program increased by $9 million for fiscal 2022, which is a step in the right direction.

Even so, making progress on ocean plastic waste will require considerably more funding for academic research, nongovernmental organizations and NOAA’s marine debris activities. Increased support for these programs will help close knowledge gaps, increase public awareness and spur effective action across the entire life cycle of plastics.

Corporate responsibility and equity

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 of how businesses and industries contribute to the accumulation of ocean plastic waste and their role in solutions.

The report correctly notes that plastic pollution is an environmental justice issue. Minority and low-income communities are disproportionately affected by many activities that produce plastic waste, from oil drilling emissions to toxic chemicals released during the production or incineration of plastics. Some proposals in the report, such as better waste management and increased recycling, may benefit these communities – but only if they are directly involved in planning and carrying them out.

The study also highlights the need to produce less plastic and scale up effective plastic recycling. More public and private funding for solutions like reusable and refillable containers, reduced packaging and standardized plastic recycling processes would increase opportunities for consumers to shift away from single-use disposable products.

Plastic pollution threatens the world’s oceans. It also poses direct and indirect risks to human health. We hope the bipartisan support this study has received a sign that US leaders are ready to take far-reaching action on this critical environmental problem.

Matthew Savoca is a Postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University. Anna Robuck is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Lauren Kashiwabara is a Master’s Degree Student in Biological Sciences at the University of the Pacific.

The Conversation

The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a social good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 pm on FlaglerLive.

Previous Conversations:

  • Tattoos’ Long and August History of Meanings
  • Millions of Unemployed Are About to Hurt a Lot More as Benefits Run Out
  • Buried Power Lines Aren’t Fail-Safe
  • Behind Hurricane Ida’s Record-Shattering Rainfall in New York and the Northeast: Yes, It’s Global Warming
  • When Human Life Begins Is a Question of Politics, Not Biology
  • How Warm Gulf Patch Quickly Turned Hurricane Ida Into a Monster Storm
  • Is It a Crime to Forge a Vaccine Card?
  • This Is What Happens to Child Migrants at the Border
  • The Story of the Women Behind the First Domestic Violence Shelters
  • The Supreme Court Ended the Eviction Ban. Now what? 4 Questions Answered.
  • ISIS-K, the Taliban’s Rival Group Behind the Kabul Airport Attack
  • Clues to Misinformation Behind Public’s and Right-Wing Media’s Misuses of Vaccine Database
  • Essential and Often Overlooked: America’s Public Library Workers
  • Behind the Feds’ Tesla Investigation, and the Future of Self-Driving Cars
  • The Meaning of Happiness from the Ashes of Pompeii
  • Ashura Explained: the Muslim Holiday that Inspires Millions
  • You’re Free to Refuse the Covid Vaccine. But It’s Un-American.
  • Why I No Longer Think We Can Eliminate Covid
  • Schools and Covid Safety: What Works and What Doesn’t
  • Afghanistan and American Hubris
  • Social Justice Begins With Honest History
  • Afghanistan Was Always a Losing Battle
  • Wonder and Promise of the Appalachian Trail
  • Holocaust Survivors Got Reparations. Why Not Slavery’s Descendants?
  • The Immense Tax Sums Religious Organizations Don’t Pay
  • Don’t Be Too Quick to Claim Voter Suppression
  • Millions of Working Americans Still Can’t Afford Food and Rent
  • Understanding the IPCC Climate Report’s Dire WarningsFor
  • Palestinians and Israelis, Human Rights and Another Grand Bargain
  • Cults and Cultism
  • Atomic Bomb Foresight Exploded Long Before Hiroshima
  • Changing Crime Reporting Practices to Do Less Harm
  • When Americans Recall their Roots, they Open Up to Immigration
  • Where Canadian Dads Are Warm, Kind and Gentle, American Dads Punish Harshly and Lack Emotional Support
  • Trump Endorsements Make a Difference, But Not the Way Candidates Hope They Do
  • Is It Time to Retire the ‘My Body, My Choice’ Slogan?
  • Narcissists
  • How This Summer Is Changing Our Understanding of Extreme Weather
  • Cautionary Tale for Coastal Towns: What Miami’s Sea Wall Will Not Protect
  • Here’s Why You Need to Mask Up Again Indoors, Even If Vaccinated
  • Can We Cancel ‘Cancel Culture’?
  • Ghostly, Soulless, Absurd Olympics
  • At Origin of Cuba’s Mass Protests: Covid Misery and US Economic Sanctions
  • Bias Is Natural. How You Manage it Defines Your Ability to Be Just.
  • Why Some Younger Evangelicals Are Leaving the Faith
  • The Inherent Racism of Anti-Vaxx Movements
  • 63% of Workers who File an EEOC Discrimination Complaint Lose Their Jobs
  • Behind Ben & Jerry’s West Bank Decision: Israel Is Losing the Battle for Public Opinion
  • Domestic Violence 911 Calls Increased During Lockdown, but Police Reports and Arrests Declined
  • Yes, Covid Can Cause Infertility and Sexual Dysfunction. But Vaccines Cannot.
  • Is Islamophobia Hate Speech?
  • The Seduction of Propaganda
  • Ignoraunce Incarno: The Wrongheaded Calls to Cancel Chaucer
  • Most Covid Deaths in England Now Are in the Vaccinated. Here’s Why That Shouldn’t Alarm You
  • High-Tide Flood Risk Will Increase 5 to 15 Times Over Next 15 Years, Putting Coastal Economies at Risk
  • Cuba Protests: 4 Essential Reads on Dissent in the Post-Castro Era
  • Zaila Avant-garde, 2021 National Spelling Bee Champ, Stands Where Black Children Were Once Kept Out
  • Trump Before Trump: When Nixon VP Spiro Agnew Attacked News Media
  • Five Lessons on Bringing Truth Back to Politics
  • Yes, States Got More Money from Washington than they Needed for Covid Relief
  • Trump Can’t beat Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in Court but the Fight Might Be Worth More Money than a Win
  • Should Supreme Court Justices Have Term Limits?
  • Critical Race Theory: What it Is and What, Gov. DeSantis, It Is Not
  • Debating Weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, 1st Transgender Woman in Individual Sports at Olympics
  • With Support for Bill Cosby, Phylicia Rashad Becomes One of Several Deans to Tweet Themselves Into Trouble

See the Full Conversation Archives

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button