Washington — Plastic marine pollution could get a much deeper look in Washington under bipartisan legislation unveiled June 26 in the Senate.
The bill proposes making plastic waste a bigger part of U.S. trade policy, looking at barriers to plastics recycling and setting up a revolving loan fund for states.
The legislation, called Save Our Seas Act 2.0, builds on more modest legislation passed last year and signed into law by President Donald Trump.
This new bill, introduced with five Democrat and four Republican co-sponsors, seeks to make more investment in domestic infrastructure, support more research and direct the executive branch to prioritize the issue.
At a news conference on Capitol Hill, the lead Republican co-sponsor, Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, said it includes four parts: boosting cleanup with a marine debris trust fund, improving international management, building domestic prevention of ocean litter and closing information gaps with more scientific studies.
"If we don't do anything about this, there will be more plastic by weight in the oceans than fish by weight by 2050," he said. "We believe that preventing waste from getting into our ocean in the first place through these four components and importantly international trade and assistance is a really, really important start to solving this problem."
"This is a solvable problem," Sullivan said. "When you look at where the challenges are, it's primarily 10 rivers in Asia and Africa that constitute up to, certain studies say, 90 percent of the plastics in the oceans globally."
The lead Democratic co-author, Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, said last year's Save Our Seas Act, and in particular lobbying from Sullivan, helped to elevate the issue in the Trump administration.
He said Sullivan has been "banging on the doors of everybody from the president of the United States to the secretary of state to the trade representative … to press at the executive level this issue as something that needs to climb up the agenda of this country."
"So much of this problem is in international territory," Whitehouse said. "Five countries, all in Asia, [account for] more than half the waste, 10 rivers in Africa and Asia. It's really important this be part of our international political, trade and national security conversation."
Another senator at the briefing, New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, noted that 25 communities in his state already have passed local ordinances banning or restricting disposable plastics, and more may join.
"If our oceans serve as the earth's circulatory system, then plastic pollution and marine debris are like cholesterol clogging up the ecosystems we depend on in countless ways," Menendez said. "No one wants to swim in plastic debris or eat fish fed on microplastics."
The bill includes many separate pieces and a fact sheet distributed by the sponsors said it would go before several committees in the Senate, including Commerce, Foreign Relations and Environment and Public Works.
It would include a new state revolving loan fund to improve U.S. waste infrastructure, fund studies to look at the human health impacts and include a "Genius Prize" to support innovation in packaging, materials, cleanup and other problems.
It would also direct the executive branch "to maintain international leadership" on marine debris and provide enhanced support for plastic waste mitigation, as well as "explore the potential" for a new international agreement on marine debris.
The American Chemistry Council's plastics division said it welcomed the introduction of the legislation and said it strongly supported the bill's focus on developing new ways to repurpose plastics. The Plastics Industry Association said it liked the act's provision to set up a marine debris response fund, research root causes and increase federal support for water and waste management infrastructure.
Whitehouse said the senators believe they've done a lot of behind-the-scenes work to see that this bill passed the Senate with wide support, or even unanimously, like the 2018 edition of the Save Our Seas Act.