US Senate passes marine debris bill

Crushed plastic debris on beach at Patton Bay, Montague Island. (Photo courtesy Chris Pallister)

A bill targeting plastic waste in the ocean and other marine debris cleared the U.S. Senate last week. Alaska’s junior Senator, Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, sponsored the legislation.

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“What is particularly troubling about the marine debris challenge and crisis … is that the majority of marine debris in the world’s oceans come from five countries in Asia: China, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam Indonesia and South Korea,” Sullivan said.

The bill calls on the State Department to engage other countries to find solutions. It would also reauthorize the Marine Debris Program for another five years, with up to $10 million a year.

Kevin Allexon, senior manager of government relations at the Ocean Conservancy, said his group has worked with Sullivan’s office on the bill. He calls it “small but significant.” Small, he said, because it’s the first item on the to-do list. And significant, he said, because it could unleash the power of the State Department to “engage with those countries, bilaterally, multilaterally, to begin a dialogue or continue a dialogue that is really kind of in its infancy right now on what to do.”

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Balton described the waste deluge as a casualty of rapid growth for the countries most responsible.

“Their pace of economic development is just moving ahead so much more rapidly than their waste-management capabilities,” Balton said at a Senate hearing on the bill last month, “so to get a handle on this we really need to help them improve waste management processes.”

Sullivan’s 21 cosponsors span the ideological spectrum, from Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla, and far to his left , Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.

Booker praised the bipartisanship but said every time he reads a report on plastic waste in the ocean, he sees the situation is more dire than most people realize. He cited massive growth in the production of plastics, and the unabated use of the material for packaging.

“This is a crisis of global proportions and we’re acting as if the little tiny bit that we’re doing is somehow going to stop our grandchildren from experiencing a world where there is more plastic … in our ocean than all of the fish and marine wildlife,” Booker said.

Booker and others say the problem isn’t just the fault of far-away countries.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. Image: Senate.gov.

Nancy Wallace directs the Marine Debris Program for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She confirmed the top five contributors of marine debris are in Asia.

“But the United States is No. 20, and we are the No. 1 generator of waste in the world. So we are contributing to this problem,” Wallace said.

The bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent, without a rollcall vote. Alaska Congressman Don Young sponsored an identical version in the House. It has also attracted a raft of co-sponsors from both parties, but the House has no hearings scheduled yet.