RECKONING WITH THE U.S. ROLE IN
Committee on the United States Contributions to
Global Ocean Plastic Waste
Ocean Studies Board
Division on Earth and Life Studies
A Consensus Study Report of
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This study was supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under Award Number WC133R17CQ0031/1305M320FNRMA0082. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for the project.
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Suggested citation: The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Reckoning with the U.S. Role in Global Ocean Plastic Waste. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/26132.
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COMMITTEE ON THE UNITED STATES CONTRIBUTIONS TO GLOBAL OCEAN PLASTIC WASTE
MARGARET SPRING, Chair, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, California
MARY J. DONOHUE, University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, Honolulu
MICHELLE GIERACH, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena
JENNA JAMBECK, University of Georgia, Athens
HAUKE KITE-POWELL, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, Massachusetts
KARA LAVENDER LAW, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, Massachusetts
JAY LUND (NAE), University of California, Davis
RAMANI NARAYAN, Michigan State University, East Lansing
EBEN SCHWARTZ, California Coastal Commission, San Francisco
RASHID SUMAILA, University of British Columbia, Vancouver
MEGAN MAY, Associate Program Officer, Ocean Studies Board
KELLY OSKVIG, Senior Program Officer, Ocean Studies Board (until May 2021)
EMILY TWIGG, Senior Program Officer, Ocean Studies Board
BRIDGET MCGOVERN, Research Associate, Ocean Studies Board
KENZA SIDI-ALI-CHERIF, Program Assistant, Ocean Studies Board
SHELLY-ANN FREELAND, Financial Business Partner
THANH NGUYEN, Financial Business Partner
OCEAN STUDIES BOARD
LARRY A. MAYER (NAE), Outgoing Chair, University of New Hampshire, Durham
CLAUDIA BENITEZ-NELSON, Incoming Chair, University of South Carolina, Columbia
MARK ABBOTT, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, Massachusetts
CAROL ARNOSTI, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
LISA CAMPBELL, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina
THOMAS S. CHANCE, ASV Global, LLC (ret.), Broussard, Louisiana
DANIEL COSTA, University of California, Santa Cruz
JOHN DELANEY, University of Washington (ret.), Seattle
SCOTT GLENN, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey
PATRICK HEIMBACH, University of Texas, Austin
MARCIA ISAKSON, University of Texas, Austin
LEKELIA JENKINS, Arizona State University, Tempe
NANCY KNOWLTON (NAS), Smithsonian Institution (ret.), Washington, District of Columbia
ANTHONY MACDONALD, Monmouth University, West Long Branch, New Jersey
THOMAS MILLER, University of Maryland, Solomons
S. BRADLEY MORAN, University of Alaska, Fairbanks
RUTH M. PERRY, Shell Exploration & Production Company, Houston, Texas
JAMES SANCHIRICO, University of California, Davis
MARK J. SPALDING, The Ocean Foundation, Washington, District of Columbia
RICHARD SPINRAD, Oregon State University, Corvallis
ROBERT S. WINOKUR, Michigan Tech Research Institute, Silver Spring, Maryland
SUSAN ROBERTS, Director
STACEE KARRAS, Senior Program Officer
KELLY OSKVIG, Senior Program Officer
EMILY TWIGG, Senior Program Officer
VANESSA CONSTANT, Associate Program Officer
MEGAN MAY, Associate Program Officer
ALEXANDRA SKRIVANEK, Associate Program Officer
BRIDGET MCGOVERN, Research Associate
SHELLY-ANN FREELAND, Financial Business Partner
THANH NGUYEN, Financial Business Partner
TRENT CUMMINGS, Senior Program Assistant (until July 2021)
KENZA SIDI-ALI-CHERIF, Program Assistant
ELIZABETH COSTA, Program Assistant
GRACE CALLAHAN, Program Assistant
The success of the 20th century miracle invention of plastics has also produced a global-scale deluge of plastic waste seemingly everywhere we look. The visibility of global ocean plastic waste, paired with increasing documentation of its ubiquity, devastating impacts on ocean health and marine wildlife, and transport through the food web, has brought widespread public awareness. Recent global attention has made it clear that the ocean plastic waste problem is linked inextricably to the increasing production of plastics and how we use and treat plastic products and waste from their beginning to well beyond the end of their useful lives.
In the United States, ocean plastic waste has become a top public concern, but the developing plastic waste crisis has been building for decades. While U.S. landmark environmental protection laws were enacted in the 1970s to address hazardous waste and toxic water and air pollution, they did not target more widespread plastic waste. Instead, U.S. attention to ocean waste understandably focused on reining in ship- and marine-based sources of ocean pollution, and on controlling discharges of toxic chemicals such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and other harmful and hazardous releases to U.S. air and waters.
Coastal states and remote islands, and those who make their living from the sea, raised early alarms about ocean plastic waste, often referred to as “marine debris.” Attention centered on the contributions from lost or abandoned fishing gear and ship-based disposal of plastics and other waste. These calls for action resulted in early government and nongovernmental programs targeting identification and cleanup of fishing gear and other trash on beaches and those harming marine habitats and entangling
wildlife. Important land-based sources of plastic waste—a growing proportion of marine debris—were governed at the state level largely under solid waste management controls such as landfills, recycling, or incineration.
After a decade of largely regional efforts to address marine debris, in 2004, the congressionally chartered U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy identified marine debris as a national ocean priority and called for strengthening marine debris efforts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other federal agencies. These recommendations shaped the 2006 Marine Debris Act, which has been reauthorized and updated three times—most recently last year, by the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act. Other laws enacted over time include the 2015 federal ban on the use of microbeads in certain products. Federal attention to land-based sources of ocean plastic waste was constrained in light of other priorities. As a result, ocean plastic waste has overwhelmed current marine debris control efforts, despite the important work all parties have achieved to date.
Since 2000, U.S. federal programs focusing on marine debris and waste management have been gaining attention in Congress. State and local action on ocean plastic waste has been outpacing federal action, with many state and local bans or restrictions on sale or use of plastic items seen most frequently in communities and coastal environments. An accumulating number of scientific studies and expert reports have raised the level of attention to the problem of plastic waste, generally, and ocean plastic waste, specifically.
Global attention to ocean plastic waste accelerated in 2016 when the United Nations adopted a new ocean-focused Sustainability Goal 14 (Life Below Water), which identified the need to address ocean plastic and other sources of ocean pollution. The United Nations Environmental Assembly has passed four resolutions since 2014, including a call for stronger coordination and a shared vision to tackle marine plastic waste. Plastic waste is on the agendas for the G7 and G20, the United Nations, and other bodies, with growing interest in a global treaty on plastic pollution. Many nations are already developing aggressive goals, strategies, and laws to stem the tide. In 2021, the UN marked the beginning of its Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, with at least one focus area on the problem of ocean plastic pollution. Additionally, international law has been amended to control exports of plastic waste under the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, but the United States is not a signatory.
Against this backdrop, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (the National Academies) engaged in efforts to understand the issues through consensus studies, including Clean Ships, Clean Ports, Clean Oceans: Controlling Garbage and Plastic Wastes at Sea (National Research Council 1995) and Tackling Marine Debris in the 21st Century (National Research Council 2009). Several years ago, the
Ocean Studies Board (OSB) identified ocean plastic waste as an area of rapidly evolving scientific discovery and societal relevance, and selected the topic for the 21st Annual Revelle Lecture in March 2020, which was delivered by Chelsea Rochman, one of a rising generation of scientists working on the problem. That same month, just before the COVID-19 pandemic reduced travel, OSB held a workshop on the ocean plastic problem, at about the same time that two other National Academies workshops were held on other plastic-related topics: Closing the Loop on the Plastics Dilemma (NASEM 2020) and Emerging Technologies to Advance Research and Decisions on the Environmental Health Effects of Microplastics.
In June 2020, NOAA engaged OSB and sponsored this study, grounded in one outlined by Congress in the Save Our Seas 2.0 bill (enacted later in 2020). OSB convened this ad hoc consensus Committee on the United States Contribution to Global Ocean Plastic Waste around an ambitious statement of task. Despite the many challenges of operating during a global pandemic, the committee met frequently to understand the state of knowledge about ocean plastic waste. We focused on specific issues facing the United States, as well as on what solutions are being tested at the local to global levels. The committee benefited from insights from federal programs at NOAA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and a range of experts and practitioners, as well as U.S. plastic waste priorities and activities. These include the United States Federal Strategy for Addressing the Global Issue of Marine Litter and priorities identified in the 2018 National Science and Technology Council Decadal Ocean Science and Technology Vision, which included preventing and reducing plastic pollution.
Much of the information on plastic waste that the committee relied on came from available government and industry data and a substantial number of studies conceived and carried out by scientists and other experts in nongovernmental organizations and academia, with limited federal support. A hallmark of these studies has been their grounding in collaborations, in partnership or coordination with government, communities, and industry groups. Philanthropic support and insights have injected innovative “circular economy” principles to these collaborations, which may help unite action toward economically beneficial solutions. Community science has grown in popularity, especially among young people. The rising generation is deeply engaged and motivated to raise their concerns about ocean plastic waste to decision makers.
While this report identifies knowledge gaps, it also summarizes what we learned, and lays out opportunities for the United States to stake out a leadership position and take meaningful steps in the United States and on the global stage, with many co-benefits for U.S. policy priorities, from climate change and social equity to economic opportunities and technology innovation. Strategies and roadmaps developed by U.S. states and other nations serve as illustrative examples.
The problems caused in the ocean and for society by the rise of plastic waste are complex and accelerating. Solving them requires a systemic and systematic approach unified around clear goals and paths for change. Ocean plastic waste is part of an overall challenge from the global growth of plastic production, especially based on fossil sources, and related economic trends, along with gaps in waste management. The disparate impacts on people and communities makes equity important in formulating strategies and evaluating impacts, costs, and solutions. The increase in plastic waste with the COVID-19 pandemic underscores the influence of larger global challenges.
As the U.S. public learns more about the plastic problem, it seeks clarity on top causes and key solutions now and for the future. Public outcry and attention in the United States and globally will intensify as more studies and reports are released by scientists and other experts. Public concern has led Congress to call for several studies to delve more deeply into questions beyond the committee’s charge. In October 2021, the United Nations Environment Program released a comprehensive global assessment of marine litter and plastic pollution to inform discussions on national and global action on plastic pollution, including a global plastic treaty (UNEP 2021a). These insights will join the growing wave of information and add to our national knowledge base.
This report is a first-order synthesis of what we learned about the questions raised in the statement of task. It by no means addresses all questions or provides all answers, but it does provide some sample blueprints for action. The report provides suggestions for a U.S. plan of action and federal leadership on this problem, including on the global stage. This will require strong federal coordination that draws on the advice and knowledge of a range of experts and practitioners, including those with a deep understanding of the incentives, processes, and practices that must change if we are to prevent plastics from entering our environment and our ocean as uncontrolled and harmful plastic waste.
The committee members and I would like to thank NOAA and the congressional sponsors for their longstanding commitment to addressing the problem of ocean plastic waste. We were honored to be selected for this important task, and I am grateful to my fellow members for their generous contributions of expertise and time. I know they join me in appreciating the tireless work of our study director, Dr. Megan May, and the larger National Academies team. I also thank the members of the Ocean Studies Board and board director, Dr. Susan Roberts, for their commitment to this important topic.
Margaret Spring, Chair
Committee on the United States Contribution to Global Ocean Plastic Waste
The committee would like to thank National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) staff and contractors who helped with this project, especially Amy V. Uhrin, MaryLee Haughwout, Nancy Wallace, Emma Tonge, Ya’el Seid-Green, Hannah Montoya, Patricia McBride Finneran, and Ryan Edwards. At five open-session meetings, the committee heard presentations from a wide array of experts. The committee thanks all the speakers: Amy V. Uhrin (NOAA), Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (U.S. Senate), Mary-Eileen Manning (Office of Senator Sullivan), Jill Hamilton (Office of Senator Whitehouse), Stewart Harris (American Chemistry Council), Steve Alexander (Association of Plastic Recyclers), Nicholas Mallos (Ocean Conservancy), Winnie Lau (Pew Charitable Trusts), Scott Fulton (Environmental Law Institute), Mary Ellen Ternes (Earth & Water Law, LLC), David Biderman (Solid Waste Association of North America), Jonathan Bishop (California State Water Resources Control Board), Jeremy Conkle (Texas A&M University Corpus Christi), Timothy Hoellein (Loyola University Chicago), Sebastian Primpke (Alfred Wegener Institute), Shungu Garaba (Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg), Victor Martinez-Vicente (Plymouth Marine Laboratory), Ellen Ramirez (NOAA), Hillary Burgess (NOAA), Romell Nandi (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), Harry Allen (Environmental Protection Agency Region 9), Nancy Wallace (NOAA), and Rusty Holleman (University of California, Davis).
The committee appreciates the American Chemistry Council’s willingness to share data on plastic production, which were used for Chapter 2.
Finally, the committee would like to thank The Research Center of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine for its research support, Eric Edkin (the National Academies) and International Mapping for graphics support, and Rona Briere for her editing support.
This Consensus Study Report was reviewed in draft form by individuals chosen for their diverse perspectives and technical expertise. The purpose of this independent review is to provide candid and critical comments that will assist the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in making each published report as sound as possible and to ensure that it meets the institutional standards for quality, objectivity, evidence, and responsiveness to the study charge. The review comments and draft manuscript remain confidential to protect the integrity of the deliberative process.
We thank the following individuals for their review of this report:
Although the reviewers listed above provided many constructive comments and suggestions, they were not asked to endorse the conclusions or recommendations of this report nor did they see the final draft
before its release. The review of this report was overseen by Danny Reible (NAE), Texas Tech University, as the Report Review Committee Monitor and Michael Kavanaugh (NAE), Geosyntec Consultants, as the Division of Earth and Life Sciences Coordinator. They were responsible for making certain that an independent examination of this report was carried out in accordance with the standards of the National Academies and that all review comments were carefully considered. Responsibility for the final content rests entirely with the authoring committee and the National Academies.