In late 2013, several US Government and Non Government Organizations sponsored a powerful presentation made at the offices of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Two UCLA students spent an entire semester gathering research and recommendations to address the issue of marine plastic pollution. The data presented in their research identified a drastic situation.
The students identified several ways in which plastic can be harmful or even fatal to marine wildlife. They found that plastic corrupts the food chain, and costs the global economy billions of dollars. Fishing, tourism, and shipping industries suffer tremendous blows financially, while cleanup costs to municipal Governments are becoming overwhelming. To further shed light on the seriousness of the situation, the research team also collected expired animals to examine the contents of their stomachs. More than half of the sea turtles, birds, and commercial fish examined had plastic in their bellies.
One hundred million tons of plastic trash was estimated to be floating around in the oceans at the date of the presentation, with another twenty million tons being added each year. It is estimated that the United States consumes 380 billion plastic bags each year, only 5% of which are recycled. The problem of plastic pollution in the ocean today was compared to that of the ozone layer depletion crisis of the 1970s. The comparison drew particular attention to the enormous success that federal policy had on the problem of ozone depletion after the Clean Air Act resulted in reduction the harmful emissions by 95%.
Students, scientists, and many other supporters of placing restrictions on disposable plastic production and sale are rallying for international policy. There has been great progress made at the state and municipal level in regards to banning disposable plastic grocery bags throughout the United States. There are currently over 110 bans restricting the use of plastic bags in place in the United States, encompassing over 150 cities. The broader international community has also begun to adopt policies that counter the use of disposable plastic. For example, there have been over thirty countries, including a large portion of Canada, that have adopted a policy known as the Extended Producer Responsibility Act. This policy directs the cost of dealing with the effects of pollution towards the manufacturer who produced the items.
People worldwide are joining the movement to drastically reduce, and ultimately end, the flood of plastic garbage that is entering our oceans. Aside from lobbying for federal policy, there are many organizations and individuals that are taking cleanup efforts into their own hands. At the forefront of the effort is the Ocean Conservancy, the organization responsible for International Coastal Cleanup Day. Every year, on September 20th, thousands of people head out to the nearest coastline in search of trash to remove. Last year’s effort drew nearly 650,000 people out to participate. These volunteers removed over 12,000,000 pounds of trash. This event has garnered sponsorship from some of the world’s largest companies including Coca-Cola, Bank of America, Walt Disney, Johnson & Johnson, and Glad.
In a perfect world, federal policy would not be necessary. So many people are starting to realize that the convenience of using disposable items is far out-weighed by the environmental cost associated with it, but unfortunately, the majority have not caught up yet. Disposable plastic is a social inefficiency that future generations will pay the price for and the more we can eliminate from our everyday lives, the less our children will have to clean up after us.