Mapping Ocean Garbage (copy)

The R/V Ocean Starr, a 171-foot mothership returns to San Francisco on Sunday, Aug. 23, 2015. Scientists and volunteers who gathered on how much plastic garbage is floating in the Pacific Ocean say most of the trash is medium to large-sized pieces, as opposed to tiny ones.

The following editorial appeared in the Washington Post.

“Without change,” warns a bipartisan group of senators, “there will be more plastic by weight than fish in the oceans by 2050.” Some of the signs of this growing crisis are visible: sea turtles caught in discarded fishing nets; piles of trash floating in the ocean; birds and fish stranded in plastic six-pack rings.

But much of the trash in the ocean is not so obvious. National Geographic reports that the iconic Great Pacific Garbage Patch — also known as the Pacific trash vortex — is really more of a soup of small plastic particles the sun has broken down, punctuated by larger items such as fishing nets and shoes. Some of the trash is dumped into the sea from ships.

But most comes from land: bottles, cups, bags. The sun breaks down these items, but they do not really biodegrade. Instead, they enter animals’ bodies, killing the animals immediately or entering marine food chains. These “microplastics” also block sunlight from supporting plankton and other backbone ecosystem species.

Ocean currents transport trash from shore to the middle of the ocean, but the problem is by no means distant and isolated.

Researchers announced in June that they had found microplastic particles off California’s idyllic Monterey Bay. And not just on the surface; the researchers found microplastics in surprising abundance in the middle of the water column. Anyone who cares about the marine ecosystem — and that ought to include every human — should be alarmed.

Enter a bipartisan group of senators, led by Sens. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who have introduced a bill that would start to take on the problem. Save Our Seas 2.0 builds on an ocean cleanliness law President Donald Trump already signed.

The new legislation would overhaul the country’s recycling infrastructure, which needs basic upgrades, such as the ability to effectively sort plastics into different grades of material. It would create a fund to respond to “marine debris events” — like a container ship accident — enabling quick response to major mishaps. And it would finance research into repurposing used plastic into useful things. Think everything from blue jeans to skateboards to telephone poles.

Even if the United States does better, though, the problem will not end without other nations cleaning up their acts. Asian countries throw enormous amounts of plastic into the seas. The senators’ bill would insist that the Trump administration prioritize ocean pollution and push for an international agreement on marine debris.

Passing this bill would represent only a start, and Congress would have to monitor implementation closely. But the legislation would be a start, and it merits quick and ringing approval.

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