Local, Federal Actions Sought for Ocean Plastic Crisis

Plastic pollution, especially in the ocean and along the coast, such as these plastic jugs found on the Portsmouth, R.I., shoreline, is a significant global problem. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

Plastic pollution, especially in the ocean and along the coast, such as these plastic jugs found on the Portsmouth, R.I., shoreline, is a significant global problem. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s Save Our Seas Act has big goals for addressing plastic in the oceans. The bipartisan bill that passed out of the Senate last year seeks to tackle marine debris and the ballooning problem of plastic waste by authorizing $10 million annually for cleanups of severe debris events in waters across the country. It also restarts federal research to determine the source of marine trash and the steps needed to prevent it.

What is already known is that much of the 8 million tons of plastic waste dumped in the world’s oceans each year happens outside the United States. In fact, five countries — China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam — are responsible for 60 percent of the plastic garbage that makes it into our waters every year, according to the Ocean Conservancy

That’s a problem, because most of those five countries receive plastic from U.S. recycling centers. The recycling industry, however, is lightly regulated, so it's hard to know the fate of the millions of bales of plastic recyclables shipped overseas annually.

The Save Our Seas Act addresses this problem by encouraging the president and the State Department to address the marine debris problem with these high-polluting nations. It also encourages international research into biodegradable plastics and establishes prevention strategies.

However, the likelihood of an environmental bill passing in the current Congress, much less President Trump endorsing it, is low. Trump wants to cut $1 billion from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which overseas the marine debris program.

For now, much of the action on marine garbage is happening at state and local levels. Those steps include greater enforcement of recycling rules, bans on certain plastics, and improvement by product manufactures to make their packaging more environmentally friendly, reusable and include take-back programs for hard-to-recycle and bulky items.

At a recent Earth Day event in Middletown, R.I., aimed at drawing attention to the Save Our Seas Act, Johnathan Berard of the Rhode Island chapter of Clean Water Action said, “We cannot recycle our way out of this problem. We will only be able to solve it through policies that stop plastic pollution at its source.”

Recycling is necessary but is vulnerable to economic and market pressures, which cause revenues for waste prevention and education to fluctuate. There is little enforcement of rules, such as requirements in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut that all business collect recyclables and offer collection for their customers. There is even less oversight of what happens to recyclables once they leave sorting centers and are shipped around the world. And with the exception of metals and glass, plastics eventually lose their durability and are down-cycled to trash.

Depending on the item, recycling rates hover between 20 percent and 30 percent nationally. Requiring a deposit on glass and plastic bottles, so-called “bottle bills,” boost the recycling rate to nearly 90 percent. But the political will for bottle bills is poor. For example, legislation is introduced in the Rhode Island General Assembly each year but rarely makes it out of committee.

The 2018 bill has yet to be scheduled a hearing. Massachusetts has had a successful 5-cent bottle-deposit program since 1983, but voters defeated a referendum in 2014 to expand the collection to include non-carbonate beverage bottles.

Take-back programs for bulky and hard-to-recycle items such as mattresses, paint cans and electronic waste have also made a difference, but expanding programs to other items like light bulbs, syringes and medications have stalled, as manufactures and retailers resist raising prices to fund collection or improvement of packaging.

This resistance puts the cost of waste management and recycling on consumers and local governments who pay for clean up and transportation. Budget limitations have led to the most cost-effective solution: bans. Prohibitions and fees on plastic bags, in particular, have proven effective at reducing land and marine debris. Dozens of communities in Massachusetts have banned plastic bags and a handful have enacted bans on polystyrene cups and to-go containers.

Seven Rhode Island communities have passed bag bans and more are considering them. Block Island even added a ban on balloons, and the “skip the straw” movement is growing among consumers and restaurants.

While bag bans and beach cleanups are helping clean southern New England, there is still the problem of global waste. Global plastic production is expected to double within 10 years and by 2050 there will be more plastic waste by weight in ocean waters than fish.

The Ocean Conservancy says a combination of education, waste collection and recycling infrastructure, and better managed and properly cited landfills are needed to tackle the plastic ocean debris epidemic.

“While we have made enormous progress cleaning up Narragansett Bay, the millions of tons of trash that are dumped into the oceans around the world can wind up on American shores and in the nets of Rhode Island fishermen,” Whitehouse said.