Senators unite to protect the world’s oceans

September 26, 2018

Senators demonstrate bipartisanship as they ponder how to clean up the world’s oceans.

Washington D.C. – Senators expressed bipartisan unity on Wednesday during a hearing on how to clean up the ocean’s plastic trash, despite a disruption from a near-by protest against Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination.

The Committee on Environment and Public Works heard testimony from scientists and industry experts on the environmental crisis facing the oceans and effective clean-up strategies. The hearing brought out bipartisan consensus, a scene often missing on the Hill in recent days.

“It’s a problem we can no longer ignore,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the committee.

There is an estimated 150 million tons of plastic currently cluttering our oceans and harming marine life, Dr. Jonathan Baillie, chief scientist of the National Geographic Society, told the committee. The organization recently launched a Planet or Plastic initiative to raise awareness about the plastic trash crisis.

The hearing put an emphasis on partnerships between private companies, government organizations, and private citizens.

“We all have a stake in clean and healthy oceans… We must work together for short and long-term solutions,” said Dr. Kara Lavender Law, oceanography research professor at Sea Education Association, which offers student research programs.

Yet, some witnesses cautioned senators against getting lost in the large picture.

“It’s laudable that we’re thinking big about trying to clean up the ocean,” Law said. But she emphasized the importance of simple, practical, and localized solutions.

Baillie of National Geographic also said that local solutions can work. He called for more programs aimed at actively discouraging plastic use, like Washington, D.C.’s five cent plastic bag surcharge. He credited the program with decreasing D.C.’s plastic bag waste.

“Why don’t we have five cent charges for plastic bags on a national scale?” Baillie asked.

Baillie also highlighted a video by the National Geographic showcasing a community in the Philippines recovering discarded plastic fishing nets and recycling them into industrial carpeting. The program has collected 18 tons of nets, according to Baillie.

Cal Dooley, president of American Chemistry Council, which represents more than 170 chemical companies, suggested similar programs aimed at increasing the value of plastic as a reusable waste material. “If you increase the value of it, you’re going to have more individuals who are going to be willing to recover it and pick it up,” Dooley said.

Five countries – China, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia – are responsible for half of the world’s total plastic waste, according to Bruce Karas, vice president of environment and sustainability at Coca-Cola. Karas took the opportunity to expand on Coca-Cola’s World Without Waste initiative to collect the plastic equivalent of every bottle or can it sells by 2030.

“While growth is important, we cannot grow at any cost,” Karas said.

Throughout the hearing, senators expressed bipartisan support for the Save Our Seas Act, which empowers the U.S. State Department to engage foreign countries with large sources of plastic waste, like the Philippines and China. The bill recently passed the House of Representatives and is expected to face a final Senate vote later today, according to Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), sponsor of the bill.

“This is a fiercely bipartisan issue. It doesn’t happen often here,” Sullivan said to laughter from the audience.

As senators continued to praise their committee’s bipartisan efforts, a nearby protest against Judge Kavanaugh’s divisive Supreme Court nomination broke out. Shouts of “Whose court? Our court,” and “We believe survivors” filtered through the hearing room.

“Let’s keep the door closed, please,” Barrasso said.

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