By Matthew Savoca, Anna Robuck and Lauren Kashiwabara
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 Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine makes clear that the U.S. is a big part of the problem.
As the report shows, the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. household waste streams is recycled. The study calls current U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
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 chronic problems like marine debris. The report proposes a cross-government effort as well but does not provide specifics.
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 is a sign that U.S. 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 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 societal 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 p.m. on FlaglerLive.
These articles are really interesting for going around in circles with no solutions. Right off the bat population and the individuals of a plastic footprint are stated as the cause of this type of pollution. So what does Flagler County do. Builds apartment complexes & more housing. If people are the problem, certainly more people stacked on top of or next to each other. One problem solution causes another. We have unaffordable housing, so they are building apartments that will rent for $ 1,800/month. Tell me there’s a mortgage on a 1,050+ sq ft house that’s nearly that unaffordable ? But luring parents & more children strains the infrastructure, we now have to build more schools because capacity will overflow in a few short years. Hire more FCSO officers, because the crime rate will increase. Across the board those making the money are hell bent on going the direction of exponentially contributing to the problem of pollution. We are really looking at closing the borders entirely for really any immigration (legal or illegal), limiting those that are already here to a smaller family. That’s never happened & it won’t, because you can’t tell someone what the can do with their reproductive organs. I don’t know who the authors are or their credentialed expertise is based upon, but obviously there’s a need for national strategy more money and blame shifting to corporations for providing solutions to the individuals that won’t stop bringing more lives into the mess. There is no solution to this problem. Biden released oil reserves to scale back gasoline inflation. So guess what, more fossil fuel and someone is using that, which creates even more of the pollution this article addresses as unsustainable. The planet is overpopulated really. And the evidence is the caravans of people crossing the desert, trying to cross a river or go over a wall. Some individuals have learned quite well, they continue to breed indiscriminately. Until that’s addressed & resolved, there is no hope of ever slowing toxic pollution of the environment. In the end the haves never see themselves as part of the problem, they will force others into going without. It’s that way when it comes to the money supply and anything else across the board with them, always has been. Financial hardship & under compensation are a couple tools.
Gina Weiss says
Jimbo99: Some of these elitist professors do talk a good line of BS don’t they. Your sentence , “In the end the haves never see themselves as part of the problem” tells it all!
Timothy Patrick Welch says
The EPA has done a wonderful job in North America.
In America proper waste disposal continues to be a problem. One aspect in the waste “Chain of Custody” that I don’t agree with is that the end user is responsible for proper disposal. And as such disposal is very difficult to monitor, quantify, and verify.
Example: A fast food joint opens down the street, and soon plastic packaging is noticed blowing around town, on the highways and in our waterways. But the fast food joint bears no responsibility in the mess.
Walter Fufidio says
Indeed, single use plastic is aproblem and each of us should avoid it as much as possible. It has been said that the largest dump in the world is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. There are groups tackling the problem by scooping plastic trash directly out of the ocean and, more effectively, collecting it in runoff from rivers in the Phillipine Islands, China and Indonesia. Each person is partly responsible but the article seeks to put the onus on only the U.S. when the bulk of the problem is created in Asia.
Thanks for the Bill-Barr-explains-the-Meuller-Report version of what this is. Not.
“Save Our Seas 2.0 Lead Sponsors Welcome New Academy of Sciences Report
on Marine Debris Crisis
Report estimates 8 million metric tons of plastic waste enters ocean each year
WASHINGTON—U.S. Senators Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), and Representatives Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) and Don Young (R-Alaska)—champions of the 2020 Save Our Seas (SOS) 2.0 Act, the most comprehensive marine debris legislation ever—today welcomed a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine entitled “Reckoning with the U.S. Role in Global Ocean Plastic Waste.” The report, mandated by the SOS 2.0 Act and sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), synthesizes all existing research on marine debris and presents a stark assessment of the amount of plastic that enters the world’s oceans…”
Gina Weiss says
LAWS ARE NOT BEING ENFORCED IN OUR OCEANS: AND YET no one has addressed industrial fishing fleets AKA TRAWLERS. SURPRISE! Industrial fishing fleets has destroyed 90% of fishes in our oceans over the last 16 years and governments do nothing to stop the poaching in our oceans. We need a ban on industrial fishing operations and we are not talking about the little guys. The European and Asian fishing fleets are the biggest culprits. Governments never resolve anything and they don’t resolve social problems. Margaret Meade “Never depend on any governments or corporations to solve any social revolution or problems they never have. All change comes through the passion of individuals.” Over the last 10 years 920 activists according to the NY Times have been murdered protecting the rain forest, turtles, oceans, we don’t hear about them because they are really not recorded. Governments are here to MAKE MONEY to drive species into extinction.
@ Gina Weiss
GW, you may be mistaken:
GW, before you take Mead’s name in vain again — consider this:
“In 1978, after 50 years at the pinnacle of American opinion, the anthropologist Margaret Mead died with a secure reputation and a lustrous legacy. Her ascent seemed to mirror the societal ascent of American women. In some two dozen books and countless articles, she gave a forceful voice to a sturdy if cautious liberalism: resolutely antiracist, pro-choice; open to ‘new ways of thinking’ yet wary of premarital sex and hesitant about the Pill. The tensions in public opinion were hers, too. In her obituary, The New York Times called her ‘a national oracle’.
But posthumous reputation is a brittle thing. It’s difficult to defend oneself after death, and the years wear away a name, eventually reducing it to dust or mere ‘influence’. Issues change, standards shift, new thinkers rise: few names last forever. Within anthropology, Mead is still revered, but mostly as a way to understand the discipline’s origins. In the popular mind, Mead’s name has all but vanished, her reputation whittled down to an apocryphal quote found on coffee mugs and dorm-room posters: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’
What’s more, Mead has become a target of vitriolic dislike for a particular kind of cultural conservatism. In 1999, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a group that promotes conservatism in colleges, ranked Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) as the single worst nonfiction book of the 20th century. In his Letters to a Young Conservative (2002), the splenetic pseudo-thinker Dinesh D’Souza accused Mead, as many others have done, of wounding ‘Western culture’ by introducing some kind of noxious, destabilising relativism. And in The Closing of the American Mind (1987), the philosopher Allan Bloom trashed Mead as a ‘sexual adventurer’.
What happened? More than the passage of time dispatching her name into the history books, Mead had an enemy who attacked with uncommon hatred: Derek Freeman, a New Zealand anthropologist who made it his life’s work to expunge Mead after her death. His criticisms have stuck. Like a parasite, his own name has lived on as ‘Mead’s critic’ (he died in 2001), leading to a strange alchemy: to the extent that Mead is remembered now, it is most often as one who was proven wrong. Freeman gave her opponents a readymade cudgel to bludgeon not only her anthropological work but everything she represented beyond that. And what, indeed, was that?…”
GW says, “…Over the last 10 years 920 activists according to the NY Times have been murdered protecting the rain forest, turtles, oceans, we don’t hear about them because they are really not recorded…”
Self-contradiction is a poor tribute to real martyrs:
GW says, “…Governments are here to MAKE MONEY to drive species into extinction…”
If this is true of ALL governments — why bother? Please, know, before you go:
Gina Weiss says
Hello POGO and welcome to my neck of the woods, I’ve been waiting for you. You know, you never cease to amaze me on how you go off into POGO’S world on tangants completely disregarding the main topics of conversation . I as well of others have seen you on here many many times and those times people have commented back to you asking what do you mean or what does this have to do with the topic at hand and this is one of those times. You have a fascination with sarcastically and completely disregarding the opinions of others with your little puns and quirks and google referrals. I guess different truths which you feel uncomfortable with hurts and you resort to your flick of the wrist blase’ comments which at times are insulting to say the least. So I begin my journey as you use your look at the shiny coin method to take away from the fact that plastics is a problem but the bigger problem is with the industrial fish fleets which nobody has addressed. You in a way remind me of big government. You sound scholarly and you do have a different take on things but that doesn’t make you right and make others or me wrong. In fact the TRUTH about my commentary must have really hit home so I take your rebuttal as a compliment. And yes it is the activist that have lead social revolutions for change that made change happen because government did nothing. Examples: Martin Luther King Jr.,Susan B. Anthony, Gandhi to name a few. As for the trashing of Margaret Meade, by the way that’s a book you can find in our local library that you should read, she was a woman who tried to persade Americans that understanding the lives of other people could help them understand their own, that motherhood and careers could and should go together and that building support networks for the overburdened nuclear family would bring greater well- being for all. Meades critics argued about something that she may or may not have said exactly in her own words but could have said along the same lines since it’s in line with other things she said. It’s not about being right but about making an argument that looks mostly right given the evidence. Therefore how can anyone discredit her based on their criticism. This was all based upon the criticism of other anthropologist. What this boils down to is that you have your beliefs and I have mine, doesn’t make mine wrong. You can’t just throw a scientist who was a American cultural anthropologist who was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom under the bus because of things that critics asserted to be true. And as for Freeman’s arguments about Meade are shown not to hold very much water. Getting back to the book, The Trashing of Margaret Meade by Paul Shankman who made it clear that Meade was basically a decent field worker and a careful scholar while Freeman was frankly a “nutcase”. Shankman also documented Freemans “atrocious behavior” such as contacting universities demanding that they revoke the PhDs of his opponents. I, in my heart believe what Margaret Meade was saying is that PEOPLE can change the world and that human beings are much more fluid and we are not imprisioned by what’s in our genetic makeup, individuals can change the world and our genetic makeup does not lie in our destiny.