US Congress’ ambitious new plan to fight ocean plastic pollution

US Congress’ ambitious new plan to fight ocean plastic pollution

February 18, 2020
Doug Cress

Doug Cress, vice president, Conservation (Trash/Plastics) from Ocean Conservancy, provides a breakdown of what the ‘Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act’ could mean for our oceans

The bill calls for an outright ban on certain problematic and unnecessary single-use plastics including carry-out plastic bags, expanded polystyrene (foam) food and drink containers, plastic utensils and plastic straws. All of these are among the top 10 items found during Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanup (ICC), and our research shows that plastic bags and utensils are among some of the deadliest forms of marine debris.

The deadliest form of marine debris, though, is abandoned, lost, or otherwise discarded fishing gear (also known as ‘ghost gear’) – one reason we were so proud to assume leadership of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative last year. The bill would direct the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study and provide recommendations aimed at reducing the impacts of derelict fishing gear – an important signal that the USA is ready to act on this immense, but often overlooked, aspect of the ocean plastics crisis.

The bill would also require the EPA and the National Institute of Health to conduct a study on the environmental impacts of tobacco-related litter, including cigarette butts and plastic electronic cigarettes. This recognizes a reality that any ICC volunteer has seen first-hand: cigarette butts are everywhere. In fact, they are always the number-one most-collected item during each year’s ICC. And because they contain plastic filters, they never go away – leaching toxic chemicals into our ocean for years to come, making them one of the top five deadliest forms of marine debris.

The bill includes a number of measures to incentivize and simplify recycling. Among these, it stipulates that plastic beverage containers (and down the line, other plastic, glass and paper products) must be manufactured from an increasing percentage of recycled content. This is important because it would create a market for recycled plastics – something we desperately need here in the USA.

The bill also requires the EPA to develop clear, standardized recycling and composting labels for products, and institutes a nationwide container deposit program with a 10% refund requirement for all beverage containers.

All of these measures would incentivize and hopefully improve recycling rates in the USA, currently the largest per capita producer of plastic waste in the world. And remember, our reliance on plastics is so entrenched – from clothing to car parts to computers and more – that no matter how well we do at cutting out single-use plastics, we still need to find ways to properly manage the plastics we do use to ensure they never make their way into the environment.

This is huge. In October 2019, Ocean Conservancy published the Plastics Policy Playbook, culminating a year of research into the solutions needed to fund effective waste management infrastructure and ensure that every piece of plastic waste is collected in parts of the world most impacted by the plastic pollution crisis. We found that implementing extended producer responsibility measures (or EPR, for short) was the most effective way to help finance the cost of collection, management and proper disposal of plastic waste.

This bill will implement EPR by requiring producers, distributors or sellers of certain single-use products to design, manage and finance programs to collect and process waste. Simply put, the bill puts the onus on companies rather than on taxpayers to help keep plastics out of our ocean. Everyone has a role to play, and this is one area that companies must pitch in.

As you can see, there’s a lot to like in this new legislation. Now, Ocean Conservancy is ready to fight to keep it strong and bold. Stay tuned here for more news as the bill progresses.

This article first appeared on the Ocean Conservancy website

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