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ocean plastics pollution

A sea turtle gets entangled in a ghost net off the coast of Malé, Maldives. (Photo: Ahmed Areef/EyeEm via Getty Images)

US Must Tackle Marine Plastics Pollution 'From Source to Sea': Report

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine study found that the U.S. is responsible for about a quarter of the plastics that enter the world's oceans each year.

Brett Wilkins

The United States is the world's leading marine plastics polluter and should devise a "national strategy" by the end of next year to address the crisis, according to a new report published Wednesday by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

"We can no longer ignore the United States' role in the plastic pollution crisis, one of the biggest environmental threats facing our oceans and our planet today."

The congressionally mandated report—entitled Reckoning With the U.S. Role in Global Ocean Plastic Waste—revealed that at least 8.8 million tons of plastics enter the world's oceans each year, with about a quarter of that amount coming from the United States.

"Plastic waste is an environmental and social crisis that the U.S. needs to affirmatively address from source to sea," Monterey Bay Aquarium chief conservation and science officer Margaret Spring—who chaired the study committee—said in a statement.

"Plastic waste generated by the U.S. has so many consequences," she added, "impacting inland and coastal communities, polluting our rivers, lakes, beaches, bays, and waterways, placing social and economic burdens on vulnerable populations, endangering marine habitats and wildlife, and contaminating waters upon which humans depend for food and livelihoods."

The report lists six steps that can be taken to begin to address the marine plastics crisis:

  • Reducing plastic manufacturing—especially for single-use and nonrecyclable products;
  • Innovating design and materials to develop substitutes that degrade more quickly or can be more easily recycled or reused;
  • Decreasing waste generation by reducing the use of disposable plastics;
  • Improving waste management including infrastructure, collection, treatment, leakage control, and accounting;
  • Capturing waste in the environment; and
  • Minimizing the maritime disposal of plastics.

The marine conservation group Oceana said in a statement that "there isn't a place on Earth untouched by plastic."

"Plastic has now been found everywhere, including in the most unexpected places: Arctic sea ice, the Mariana Trench, air in the remotest of mountains, rain in our national parks, and our food, including honey, salt, water, and beer," the group continued. "Scientists are still studying what all this means for human health. With plastic production growing at a rapid rate, increasing amounts of plastic can be expected to flood our blue planet with devastating consequences."

Oceana plastics campaign director Christy Leavitt said that "we can no longer ignore the United States' role in the plastic pollution crisis, one of the biggest environmental threats facing our oceans and our planet today."

"This report shows that much of the plastic waste that threatens critical ecosystems, wildlife, and human health around the globe originates here in the U.S., and our country's leaders have a responsibility to change that," she argued.

"A national solution is already mapped out, thanks to the introduction of the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act earlier this year," Leavitt continued, referring to a bill sponsored by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.).

"Now it's time for members of Congress to pass it," she added, "so we can stop wasting time with inadequate solutions and finally tackle the plastics problem with the comprehensive approach and source reduction it requires."

The report comes less than two weeks after the Biden administration—in sharp contrast to the Trump era—announced support for developing a global treaty to tackle marine plastic pollution, a move that was applauded by environmentalists.


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