Imagine dumping a garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean. Now imagine dumping a garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean every minute. That’s the equivalent of the 8 million metric tons of plastic waste that enter our planet’s oceans every year.
It’s a massive problem, detailed in a number of papers that examine the global nature of plastic pollution. But it’s detailed from the U.S. perspective for the first time ever in a study that Congress ordered the National Academy of Sciences to conduct, part of the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act. The report, published in December, takes a close look at how the U.S. fits into the global problem, and also provides a long list of various potential legal and governmental remedies that could begin to chip away at solutions.
The 211-page report illuminates the leading role of the U.S. in contributing to this problem – we produce nearly twice as much plastic waste as China, and more than the entire European Union.
“This report is significant is because it is enshrining in one place, in an expert document produced by one of the nation’s most prestigious scientific organizations, a look at the U.S. role in this problem,” says Aimee David, vice president of ocean conservation policy at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “It highlights data that shows the U.S. has been the number-one producer of plastic waste. The amount of plastic going into the ocean is going to grow 6 times over between 2015 and 2030. We absolutely need to focus on the production end as much as we have in the past on the cleaning-it-up end.”
This is where a major shift is needed. Plastic is part of all of our everyday lives. And it’s past time to stop believing that we can recycle our way out of the problem – 60 years after plastic was introduced commercially, we recycle less than 9 percent of it. Even in sophisticated trash management systems (like that in the U.S.), there is still what scientists call “leakage,” that ends up in waterways and eventually the ocean.
Plastic is an extraordinary product, hence its success – something the Academy acknowledges openly. From the preface to the report: “The success of the 20th-century miracle invention of plastics has also produced a global scale deluge of plastic waste seemingly everywhere we look.” That’s written by Margaret Spring, chair of the Committee on the U.S. Contribution to Global Ocean Plastic Waste, and also chief conservation and science officer for the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
“Recycling isn’t the solution,” Spring says plainly.
So what is? It will be something that is a more circular economy – in which products have a longer lifespan and are not just meant to be thrown out after one use, and can be repurposed, generating less waste.
Is it a zero-plastic world? Not necessarily, Spring says – but it’s a zero-plastic leakage world.
“We have to pursue something else,” David says. “We just need to usher in new ways to package and deliver consumer goods. That is a daunting task.”
But it’s a task that Spring and David are surprisingly optimistic about taking on. The release of the U.S. report coincided with a new international report, “From Pollution to Solution: A Global Assessment of Marine Litter and Plastic Pollution,” released by the UN. And that report coincided with widespread announcements about a global treaty to tackle plastic pollution – the American Chemistry Council said it would support the treaty, as did U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
In California, the Plastic Waste Reduction Regulations Initiative has qualified for the Nov. 8 ballot (with support from the Aquarium, among other institutions). If approved by voters, it would require CalRecycle to adopt regulations that start to reduce single-use plastic, and would impose at least a 1-cent fee on single-use plastic packaging.
Spring was born in 1960, or as she calls it, the Year of Plastic. “I am the lifecycle of plastic,” she says. “And this is the only report we’ve ever had, 60 years later. It’s maybe not the dawn of the problem, but the dawn of solution. We have enough information to act, and we must act.”
The report gives both David and Spring reason to be hopeful. “With something like plastic, it’s one of those things where you’ve just got to keep trying,” David says. “I have a lot of hope that we can change things.”