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Study: 8 Million Metric Tons of Plastic Waste Enter Oceans Each Year

Dec 1, 2021 | Environmental, Fisheries, Government, News, Science

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By the end of the decade, plastic waste going into the world’s oceans could weigh half as much as the total amount of seafood coming out of them. That’s one finding of a new federal study mandated by the 2020 Save Our Seas (SOS) 2.0 Act.

Stark Assessment

US Senators Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island), and Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), and Representatives Suzanne Bonamici (D-Oregon) and Don Young (R-Alaska) welcomed the report titled “Reckoning with the US Role in Global Ocean Plastic Waste.” The members of Congress championed the SOS 2.0 Act, signed nearly a year ago, which directed the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to synthesize all existing research on marine debris.

According to the report, an estimated eight million metric tons (MMT) of plastic waste enters the world’s oceans each year—the equivalent of dumping a garbage truck of plastic waste into the ocean every minute. If current practices continue, the amount of plas­tic waste discharged into the ocean could reach up to 53 MMT per year by 2030, roughly half of the total weight of fish caught from the ocean annually. The study’s key recommendation is that the United States create a com­prehensive federal research and policy strategy that focuses on interventions across the entire plastic life cycle to reduce the US contribu­tion of plastic waste to the environment, including the ocean.

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“I want to share my appreciation for the experts at the National Academies study committee and the NOAA Marine Debris Office for their critical work on this landmark analysis that deepens our understanding of the challenge of marine debris,” Sullivan says. “This report is a sobering reminder of the scale of this problem, which impacts Alaska more than any other state with our 6,600 miles of coastline. The research and findings compiled here by our best scientists will serve as a springboard to our future legislative efforts to tackle this entirely solvable environmental challenge and better protect our marine ecosystems, fisheries, and coastal economies.”

“This National Academies study, carried out at the direction of our Save Our Seas 2.0 law, illustrates the mind-boggling scale of the global ocean plastic problem and how the U.S. contributes to it,” says Whitehouse. “There’s a bipartisan tradition of ocean stewardship in the Senate, and I look forward to working with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to keep making progress cleaning up this harmful mess.”

“The National Academies plastic waste report, which emphasizes the negative impact of plastic pollution on coastal tourism, property values, and fisheries, is especially relevant to the safety and prosperity of communities in coastal states like New Jersey,” Menendez adds. “As the United Nation’s Environment Assembly initiates negotiations on a global agreement to combat plastic pollution this February, we are committed to ensuring the advances made in SOS 2.0 continue to guide the United States’ environmental and climate leadership on the world stage.”

Reducing Waste Generation

While some plastic is dispersed across the open ocean in the form of microscopic particles, the problem becomes evident when bulk plastic washes ashore.

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“Marine debris is a threat to the health of the ocean and the species that depend on it for survival,” says Bonamici. “I am encouraged that this report… focuses on the importance of interventions across the entire plastic lifecycle. Improving our monitoring and waste management efforts will be important but not sufficient. We must significantly reduce the creation of plastic debris. I look forward to the implementation of this report’s findings and the continued development of policies to address this critical environmental issue.”

“Healthy oceans are essential to Alaska’s economy and way of life. As Co-Chair of the House Oceans Caucus, monitoring and eliminating marine debris has been one of my highest priorities,” says Young. “I am grateful to everyone at the Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine who helped make this report possible. I will keep standing up for the health of our waters, and look forward to continuing to work with friends on both sides of the aisle to ensure recommendations from this report are explored and implemented.”

The report concludes that no single solution can reduce the flow of plastic waste to the ocean. Rather, it recommends several interventions at every stage of plastic’s path from first manufacture to the marine ecosystem. Those actions include reducing plastic production, innovating new materials and designs, decreasing waste generation per person, improving waste management, actively capturing waste, and minimizing at-sea disposal.

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