Statement On Ocean Plastics | U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont


Mr. Chairman, this is an extremely important issue and we have excellent witnesses here to discuss it.  Senator Whitehouse and I were in Vietnam last year where we met with Vietnamese officials and scientists to discuss ocean plastic pollution, which is a serious problem for that country with a 2,000 mile coastline. 

We – and by that I mean human beings – are causing potentially irreparable harm to the oceans and marine wildlife, which are the primary source of protein for billions of the world’s people. 

Acidification from carbon emissions, oil spills, untreated sewage, and millions of tons of plastic waste are destroying life in the oceans.  Rivers that empty into the oceans carry enormous quantities of discarded plastic.  Beaches are littered with it.  Coral reefs are dying. 

Virtually every marine creature is ingesting plastic, from tiny particles to plastic bottles, bags, and other containers.  Enough plastic debris to cover half a tennis court has been found in the body of a single dead whale.  Seals and sea birds are ingesting plastic.  Even plankton, so it makes its way up the food chain to the fish we eat. 

Many people assume recycling is the answer, and that is what the chemical companies and the companies that produce plastic containers want us to think.  I wish it were true.  Less than 10 percent of the world’s plastic is recycled. 

Part of the reason is lack of infrastructure and regulations, but some plastic, like plastic bags, cannot be recycled.  And even plastic that can be recycled can only be reused a few times.  Then it is discarded.    

It is for these reasons that I have cosponsored Senator Udall’s “Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act”, which, among other things, limits certain single-use plastics and requires manufacturers of plastic products to finance and organize the recycling of their products after consumer use.

In my state of Vermont, a new law limiting plastic bags, foam food containers, and straws has recently taken effect. Vermont has also had a bottle deposit program since 1973 and former Senator Jim Jeffords repeatedly called for a nationwide bottle deposit bill.

And I supported passage and enactment of the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, to phase out the use of microbeads that were polluting Lake Champlain and other waters.  But more must be done – in Vermont, and in every state and country.

Not only have we been far too lax about this problem, it is projected to get exponentially worse if we and other countries don’t act with a greater sense of urgency.

One can cite many causes.  The greed of corporations that are doing whatever they can to produce and sell more plastic, while they pay lip service to the environment and public health.  The failure of governments to treat this problem with the gravity it deserves.  The complacency of consumers, who by following some simple steps could significantly reduce the use of single use plastic bags, bottles, and other containers.

And we cannot ignore the fact that a lot of the plastic that is in the rivers and littering the beaches and coast lines of other countries, and that ends up in the ocean, came from the United States and China.  We have been producing and using more and more plastic bags, bottles, wrapping, and other items, and shipping our plastic waste and other garbage overseas for decades, with no regard to what was done with it.

So it’s no surprise that the Plastics Industry Association says 95 percent of plastic in the ocean comes from 10 rivers in Asia and Africa.  That purposefully obscures the fact that it didn’t just miraculously end up in Asian and African rivers.  A lot of it came from here.

I hope our witnesses will give us concrete recommendations for what we can and should do to help other countries reduce plastic pollution and protect the oceans for all of us. 

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