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Update on U.S. and International Laws to Address the Plastics in the Ocean Crisis

In recent years, and with increasing intensity, Congress is paying attention to the “plasticide” our ocean and environment are facing and beginning to contemplate the necessary legislative changes to address the problem. Necessary action is transpiring on all levels: state, federal, and international. 

Most notably sparking discussion is the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, a bill introduced by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) (S. 984/H.R. 2238). This bill is quite comprehensive and includes the following elements from their press release:  

While it’s a moon shot and has yet to be reported from a Committee in Congress, it has contributed to a ripple effect in legislation to address plastic pollution around the nation. 

The Department of Energy recently announced an increase of $14.5 million in funding for advancing technologies that combat plastic waste, reducing plastic pollution and cutting the carbon footprint of plastic production.   

Over the last few years, most legislation regarding plastic waste was surfacing at a state level. Plastic bag bans, for example, have been enacted in New York, California, Vermont, Hawaii, Maine, Connecticut, Oregon, and Delaware. Virginia recently instituted a fine for releasing non-biodegradable balloons, with all proceeds going to the Game Protection Fund.   

States are slowly taking action but as Hawaii State Senator Chris Lee expressed in a recent Congressional hearing, this issue cannot be resolved by state action alone. “States are taking action, but it’s just not enough,” he said in his testimonial for the Ocean- Based Climate Solutions Act, H.R. 3764, a bill Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), the Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, reintroduced in the 117th (current) Congress.  

This bill has received a lot of attention in many ways in its attempts to combat climate change. Regarding the plastics issues, it proposes a tax on virgin plastics, creating revenue for the U.S. general fund. “Taxing plastic will also discourage this wasteful material that chokes our marine life, contributes to climate change and creates environmental injustices,” Chairman Grijalva stated in another virtual hearing. H.R. 3764 has been cosponsored by 33 House Members.  

On an international level, The International Maritime Organization (IMO), among other agencies, is also addressing the issue of plastic pollution. The IMO, in partnership with 30 countries, has started the GloLitter Partnerships Project in order to address plastic litter in the ocean. This initiative seeks to train and equip partnering countries with the knowledge, technological assistance, and methods of enforcing current regulations within the shipping and fishing industries. It also creates a connection between ports and waste management, in order to monitor the whole supply chain.  

On top of that, the United Nations is addressing the plastic pollution crisis and starting to bring attention to a potential treaty–one that even business is supporting. The Plastic Pollution Treaty, supported by over fifty global companies, implores global leadership to appropriately address the crisis.  To date, the United States has not taken a position on this treaty.  

Finally, industry is paying more attention to this issue. The Global Plastics Alliance has participated in hundreds of projects against marine debris, ranging from waste management to beach cleanups. They have also set a goal of “deploying $1.5 billion over the next five years to help end plastic waste in the environment.” 

In conclusion, NAMEPA’s Mission has an important component which addresses plastic and other forms of marine pollution. We are grateful to see Congress, the world, and industry step up to the plate to Save Our Seas.  

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