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Stopping Ocean Plastic Pollution Starts With Us

New study shows the United States is a top contributor to coastal plastic pollution

Manta Ray DO NOT USE
© Vincent Kneefel

This blog was updated on December 8, 2021.

Last week, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) released a new report with a clear message: The United States is a major contributor to the ocean plastic crisis, and we have no time to waste if we want to protect our ocean. The bipartisan Save Our Seas 2.0 Act—passed last year with the support of advocates like you—called for this consensus report on the role of the U.S. in the plastic pollution crisis. The report concluded that if we continue as usual, the amount of plastic waste discharged into the ocean could reach 53 million metric tons annually. That’s nearly 6 times the amount of plastic currently entering our ocean each year.

This report used previous research published in the journal Science Advances that found the U.S. ranks as high as third among countries contributing to plastic in the coastal environment. We need to change the way the world thinks about the U.S.’ role in tackling global plastic pollution. Both these reports challenge the widely-held belief that the U.S. is adequately “managing”—that is, collecting and properly landfilling, recycling or otherwise containing—its plastic waste. Rather, these studies underscore that the U.S. has outsourced its massive “plastic footprint” to developing countries and, in so doing, has become a top contributor to the global ocean plastics crisis.

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At the center of this problem is the fact that the U.S. generates the most plastic waste of any country in the world (both overall and per capita), as found by previous Ocean Conservancy research and confirmed by the NASEM report. While we have just 4% of the world’s population, we create 17% of the world’s plastic waste. And this production of plastic waste has for too long outpaced our ability to manage it. This was highlighted last year by another groundbreaking study that we and another team of scientists published in Science that quantified the scale and scope of the problem. This study showed that to stabilize ocean plastic inputs to 2015 levels, the global community must reduce plastic waste by 40% while simultaneously increasing waste management capacity across all economies and massively scaling up the environmental cleanup of the remaining plastics that flow into waterways and the ocean.

This is a Herculean task. And last week’s report shows that the U.S. must play a much larger role in addressing this global plastic pollution crisis than it has to date. While there is no single solution to ocean plastic, reducing plastic waste generation here at home is among the most important actions identified in this report. Not only will this reduce plastic pollution locally but will also reduce the mounting pressure to adequately manage plastics in many rapidly developing economies where we have historically outsourced most of our plastic waste.

This new National Academies report should be a call to action for all Americans to address plastic pollution at home. We can no longer simply put these materials in the blue recycle bin and assume our job is done. We must work to ensure the U.S. is not a leading contributor to the problem, but rather a leader in advancing practical and effective solutions. First, we must come to grips with our massive reliance on plastic, including problematic single-use plastics. Then we must work to advance state and federal policy to reduce its production, ensure equitable access to effective waste management in all communities and support innovation in alternatives to plastic. Doing anything less will only exacerbate what is already an unacceptable ocean crisis of our own making.

You can act now to ensure the U.S. addresses the issue of plastic pollution at home and avoid irreparable damage to our ocean. Help keep our ocean trash-free by telling Congress to support legislation that cuts down on ocean plastics.

The rapidly accelerating plastic pollution crisis can no longer be deemed a problem from “over there.” Our new research clearly shows that global plastic pollution starts with the United States and must stop in the United States.

The problem is ours to solve.

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