September 25, 2019

GAO Report Shows Ways to Improve U.S. Response to Marine Debris Crisis

Whitehouse leads bipartisan group of senators in releasing government watchdog’s findings on the federal response to the plastic and other waste threatening our oceans

Washington, DC – Today, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) led 13 senators in releasing findings of the Government Accountability Office that show the federal government could be doing more to confront the global marine debris crisis affecting American coastal communities and businesses. 

“Plastic trash and other marine debris crowding our oceans is a massive pollution and health threat.  This report makes clear that there is more the federal government can do to protect our oceans,” said Whitehouse. “I’m proud of the bipartisan marine debris bill we passed last year, and of the recent progress of our next bipartisan bill to put many of these experts’ suggestions into practice.”

Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Chris Coons (D-DE), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Patty Murray (D-WA), Gary Peters (D-MI), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Tom Udall (D-NH), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) joined Whitehouse in requesting the study.  The senators asked the federal watchdog agency to review federal efforts to address marine debris. 

In addition to identifying improvements to the interagency committee overseeing the coordinated federal marine debris response, the report includes additional recommendations from over a dozen experts on ways for the federal government to more effectively confront the marine debris crisis, including:

  • Coordination with international governments and stakeholders to help develop partnerships and international agreements to confront the sources of marine debris.  Research shows that the vast majority of marine debris enters the oceans via 10 river systems around the globe, meaning international cooperation can go far in combatting marine debris.
  • Further research on the pathways waste travels before becoming marine debris and its effects on ocean and coastal ecosystems.
  • The development and deployment of new technology to improve the recyclability of plastic materials, like food packaging. 
  • Establishing best practices and better stakeholder cooperation for addressing derelict fishing gear.
  • New incentives to improve local waste management and systems for managing and recycling waste so it does not end up as marine debris. 

The report is being released the same day that the Senate Foreign Relations and Environment and Public Works Committees considered their respective portions of the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act—bipartisan legislation introduced this year to help reduce the creation of plastic waste, find uses for the plastic waste that already exists to keep it from entering the oceans, spur innovation, and tackle the problem on a global scale.  The legislation builds on the initial progress made by the Save Our Seas Act, which was signed into law by President Trump last fall.

Roughly eight million metric tons of mismanaged plastic waste from land enters the oceans each year.  Ninety percent of this plastic enters the oceans from ten rivers, eight of which are in Asia.  The plastic breaks down into tiny pieces that can enter the marine food chain and harm fish and wildlife, and wash ashore on even the most remote stretches of coastline.  Plastic has been found in areas as remote as the Mariana Trench, the deepest known point in the ocean.

The full report is accessible here.



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