Statement Of Senator Leahy On Ocean Plastic Pollution

Mr. LEAHY.  Mr. President, the world’s oceans serve as a crucial carbon sink, a home to hundreds of thousands of known and countless unknown species of marine life, an essential source of protein for billions of people, and a facilitator of billions of dollars in tourism, fishing, shipping, and other economic activity.  Today, the oceans, on which life on Earth depends, are under serious threat.

Threats from climate change, habitat destruction, illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, and pollution – plastic waste pollution in particular – are accelerating and causing potentially irreparable harm to this planet.

I spoke recently on the significant health, environmental, and economic impacts of the more than 300 billion pounds of plastic waste circulating in the oceans, and on funding in the Senate version of the fiscal year 2020 Department of State and Foreign Operations Appropriations bill to strengthen U.S. efforts to address this pollution.

Today I will further discuss the scale of the problem and actions that governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), private companies, and other stakeholders can take to address this challenge.  

I want to share a few findings and recommendations from a report recently published by Ocean Conservancy and the Trash Free Seas Alliance, a global group of companies and NGOs seeking to reduce and reinvent products and services that contribute to ocean pollution.

Absent collective action, the report depicts a bleak future – one involving more than 550 billion pounds of plastic waste in the oceans by 2025, clogging our rivers and waterways, threatening marine life and seabirds, endangering human health, contaminating the food supply, and triggering a significant decline in economic benefits.

For perspective, the amount of plastic entering the oceans each year is equivalent to dumping a garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean every minute of every hour of every day.  That is 1,440 truckloads of plastic per day, or more than half a million truckloads per year.  And of course this does not include the immense amounts of chemical waste and other types of pollution that enter the oceans every day.

As the report describes, rising ocean plastic pollution is a direct result of the increasing global production and use of plastic, which totals more than 750 billion pounds per year, an estimated 40 percent of which is single-use.  Waste management systems, particularly in developing countries, are woefully incapable of managing the growing quantity of plastic waste.

So the majority of plastic entering the oceans was never collected as part of a formal waste management system, and without increased resources for waste management programs and improvements to collection infrastructure, developing countries – and the oceans – will continue to be inundated with plastic waste.

There is no single solution.  Instead, the report outlines four priority areas on which to focus our collective efforts: financing the collection of plastic waste; reducing the production and use of single-use plastics; improving design standards to address non-recyclable or difficult to recycle plastics; and increasing the demand for post-consumer plastics.

One option for increasing resources to finance the collection of plastic waste is by charging fees to companies based on the amount of non-recyclable materials used in their products.  Such fees have the potential to generate up to 75 percent of the resources needed to support effective waste collection programs.  And increasing the demand for recycled products – one of the other priority lines of effort – reportedly has the potential to reduce the resources needed for such programs by more than 30 percent.  Other options for tackling plastic pollution include a ban on microplastics, incentive programs for recycling, preferential procurement policies, and the use of refillable packaging.

All of this is to say that steps can, and must, be urgently taken.  While ocean plastic pollution may be a devastating and growing challenge, it is not an insurmountable one.

And as I’ve said before, while the United States should significantly increase our engagement and leadership on this issue, we cannot solve this problem alone.  There is no greater unifier than the oceans.  Their protection should be of the utmost importance to governments, companies, and individuals on every continent and in every country.    

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