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Two Competing Solutions, One Urgent Threat

There’s little question that plastic pollution is amounting to critical damage in the marine environment. According to the Ocean Conservancy, 8 million metric tons of plastic enter our ocean every yearChange is necessary. Governmental action is necessary. However, the effective method of change is still highly disputed.  

The Save Our Seas 2.0 Act was passed into legislation in October of 2020, which advanced the intentions of the original Save Our Seas Act of 2018. This federal bill addresses the worsening issue of plastic pollution in the ocean in a couple of ways: increasing funding for the Marine Debris Foundation (coinciding with an increase for research and waste management), a genius prize which is hoped to inspire innovation in plastic waste management initiatives, and an expansion of grants for plastic pollution mitigation. For a more in-depth analysis of Save Our Seas 2.0, read here 

This bill became law with ease, seeing bipartisan support all the way up to former President Donald Trump. The act was praised by some environmentalists, but criticized by others. Five months after the SOS2.0 passed, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley and Representative Alan Lowenthal introduced the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act (BFFPPA) to Congress on March 25. While the SOS 2.0 Act expanded previous measures of resolving the plastic waste issue, the BFFPPA takes on marine debris by viewing the production of plastic as the real issue.  The BFFPPA would enforce measures such as banning single-use plastics, holding companies accountable for their environmental transparency, and incentivizing recyclable product design. BFFPPA has 98 co-sponsors in the house and 12 co-sponsors in the Senate and is backed by multiple organizations such as Greenpeace, Surfrider, and Algalita. Current law recognizes cleanup projects, recycling expansion, and innovation as pollution mitigating methods, but the BFFPPA, and those who support it, consider these methods insufficient. The administration of BFFPPA wrote a letter of Opposition to Save our Seas 2.0, Senate bill 1982, stating, in summary, that the bill is an inadequate response to the tremendous amount of plastic waste the environment is enduring.  

Save Our Seas Act 2.0 created the private-public Marine Debris Foundation, run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in order to ensure that a higher percentage of materials are recycled, as opposed to the mere annual rate of 9% that the U.S. currently upholds. That figure has remained stagnant since 2012, but NOAA’s foundation is making an impact. Plastic is estimated to make up around 85% of all marine debris found on shorelines. In 2020, NOAA removed 18,800 tons of marine debris from the ocean through hundreds of educational projects. This isn’t a tremendous amount, especially considering it in comparison to our ocean’s current collection of marine debris, but these figures are from projects funded by the original Save Our Seas Act. How the Marine Debris Foundation is utilizing its increase from $10 million to $15 in funding is yet to be apparent.  

The BFFPPA, on the other hand, would be revolutionary in its method of limiting waste. This bill would require plastic producers to redesign their packaging in ways that are easier to recycle and prohibit unrecyclable plastics, tackling the plastic waste issue from its true source. It will also forbid exporting waste plastic to countries that lack the infrastructure to manage the waste. While implementing much more ambitious measures will surely enact change, the act also comes as a threat to business owners who rely on cheap plastic options. Plastics Industry Association opposed the bill strongly, with President and CEO Tony Radoszewski stating “This legislation would be absolutely devastating to manufacturing jobs and America’s overall economy just as we begin to rebound from the effects of COVID-19.” 

The apparent opposition between these two bills begs the question: why is a compromise so overlooked? These bills are not in contention by nature: one focuses on the production of plastic and one focuses on plastic waste management. To tackle the entire cycle of plastic, we need to value action in both of these sectors, rather than disagreeing on which is the more important one. 

While our current methods of recycling have proven ineffective, funding for building new recycling infrastructure is still necessary. This isn’t as absolute of a solution as BFFPPA, but the drastic level of reform that is undeniably necessary entails a transitionary stage. The middle ground between these two bills can deliver more meaningful governmental action, as well as a period for transition. For example, if SOS 2.0 was amended to include holding plastic producers responsible for producing recyclable designs, the funding for recycling infrastructure that SOS 2.0 includes wouldn’t be a waste. Our nation’s recycling rate would be seen as an accomplishment rather than a problem. The unanimous bipartisan support on Save Our Seas 2.0 shows how environmental action can make its way through the senate; the lack of support for BFFPPA, however, shows that compromise is a prerequisite. With ambition and transition, governmental action can begin to be both realistic and impactful.  

While the dispute between methods of environmental government action remains prevalent, the increase in attention on any action for plastic management is progress. For ways you can reduce your own waste output, or get involved with community efforts, visit https://namepa.net/take-action/ 

Ryan Salese

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