Ocean Sciences News

Mixed Reviews for Bill to Curb Ocean Plastics Pollution

Although the Save Our Seas supporters include industry and the Ocean Conservancy, some environmental groups say the legislation won’t solve the problem.

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UPDATE: The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation this morning (13 November) approved bipartisan Save Our Seas 2.0 legislation to deal with ocean plastics pollution. The move was applauded by a number of senators, including bill co-sponsor Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

At the committee’s markup, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) voiced opposition to the measure, saying, “I agree with the environmentalists who have written that Save Our Seas 2.0 does little to tackle this problem.” Udall said that he is working on “a comprehensive solution bill” that should be ready soon.

 

With bipartisan measures to reduce ocean plastics pollution and other marine debris moving forward in Congress, supporters from the plastics industry and some in the conservation community say that the legislation, known as the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act, could make a real difference.

However, dozens of environmental groups oppose the legislation, part of which a Senate committee is likely to consider today, 13 November. They say that the measure is a far cry from dealing effectively with the problem of ocean plastics pollution.

The legislation, which was introduced in June by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), among others, includes initiatives to improve the U.S. domestic response to marine debris through efforts such as establishing a marine debris response trust fund and conducting new studies about the problem. Other provisions would increase U.S. efforts to help with the enormous plastics problem internationally and improve domestic waste infrastructure.

The overall bill, which builds on earlier ocean debris legislation signed into law last November, is also being considered by several Senate committees as separate stand-alone bills. These include S. 1982, which the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation is considering on 13 November.

Opposition from Some Environment Groups

In an 8 November letter, conservation groups opposing the legislation stated that although they appreciate congressional attention to the plastics pollution problem, some of the legislative provisions may make the problem even worse.

“We need Congress to pass legislation that reduces the generation of plastic, particularly single-use plastic packaging,” states the letter, signed by groups including the Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace, and Beyond Plastics.

Among their concerns, the letter states, “this bill will do little to reduce the staggering amount of plastic polluting our streets, streams, shores and seas, as it does not curb upstream production or adequately provide for a transition to reusable and refillable packaging.”

The letter also states that plastic production is a major contributor to climate change and that “this bill will do virtually nothing to reduce the carbon emissions from plastic production facilities.”

The bill “at best will deal with litter after the fact or attempt to prop up a very anemic recycling program,” said Judith Enck, founder and director of Beyond Plastics. “There are parts of the bill that are harmless, but there are parts that will do harm. Most notably, you don’t want senators to think they are actually solving any kind of problem with this bill, because they’re not.”

Enck said that she favors forthcoming legislation that Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) expect to introduce in 2020. That legislation would include provisions like nationwide container deposits, the banning of some specific pollutant products such as lightweight plastic carryout bags, and a moratorium on new plastics-producing facilities.

Jan Dell, founder of the Last Beach Cleanup, said that legislation “seeks to focus on stopping plastics pollution before it starts.”

Keith Christman, managing director of plastics markets for the American Chemistry Council, said that opposition to Save Our Seas 2.0 doesn’t consider a bigger picture. “Had they looked at what products you are going to use instead [of plastic], they would have found that alternatives have more greenhouse gas emissions associated with them, produce more waste, [and] in many cases use more water.”

Christman also said it’s incorrect that making less plastic is the solution. “If you make less plastic, you’re going to make something else instead, whether it be steel or aluminum or glass or some other product,” he said. Christman defended the use of plastics in a wide range of uses, including reducing food waste and making lighter-weight cars.

John Grant, director of government affairs for the Plastics Industry Association, applauded the Save Our Seas 2.0 focus on improving domestic recycling infrastructure and said the bill “will ignite innovation in recycling.”

The Beginning of the Solution, Not the End

One of the conservation groups supporting the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act is the Washington, D.C.–based Ocean Conservancy.

“There is no doubt that more can and should be done to address ocean plastic pollution, but we cannot let this important legislative opportunity to protect our ocean slip away just because it is not everything we could ever hope for in a bill,” said Jeff Watters, the group’s senior director of government relations. “Save Our Seas 2.0 is a significant and commendable expansion of the first Save Our Seas Act, and we are thrilled that it has bipartisan support. We view it as the beginning of the solution, not the end.”

A Democratic aide who worked on the legislation, who commented on the condition that they not be identified by name, said that the bipartisan support for Save Our Seas 2.0 makes it likely that the bill will become law “while also paving the way for the next evolution of policy and programs to better address plastic waste and marine debris.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

13 November 2019: This story has been updated to include the outcome of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation vote on the Save Our Seas 2.0 legislation.

Citation: Showstack, R. (2019), Mixed reviews for bill to curb ocean plastics pollution, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO136485. Published on 13 November 2019.
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