Washington — President Donald Trump signed legislation Oct. 11 beefing up U.S. government efforts to control ocean plastics pollution, including authorizing funding for marine debris cleanup and research and laying the groundwork for stronger international action.
In a White House ceremony, Trump said the Save Our Seas Act had bipartisan support — it passed the Senate unanimously — and he suggested his administration would be pushing other countries on the problem.
“As president, I will continue to do everything I can to stop other nations from making our oceans into their landfills,” Trump said. “That’s why I’m pleased — very pleased, I must say — to put my signature on this important legislation.”
The law was praised by both the Plastics Industry Association and the American Chemistry Council, saying that it would help support recycling and waste management infrastructure.
“This important bipartisan legislation reinvigorates marine debris programs and includes language recognizing the need to advance and deploy waste management, particularly in emerging economies,” Steve Russell, vice president of ACC’s plastics division, said in a statement.
The law funds the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program through 2022 and gives the head of NOAA authority to declare severe marine debris events and authorize funds for cleanup. States can also request that declaration.
According to a statement from a bipartisan group of senators who sponsored the bill and said it was prompted by plastic waste worries, the law supports research into improved waste management and new materials that reduce marine debris, and it supports stronger international efforts.
Specifically, it encourages the federal government to “engage with leaders of nations responsible for the majority of marine debris,” and it supports using trade agreements to urge other countries to improve waste management.
The lead Republican co-sponsor, Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, highlighted those international efforts in a statement.
“This bill will serve to strengthen the federal response capabilities to marine debris disasters, combat land-based marine debris resources, and encourage interagency coordination in stemming the tide of ocean trash and importantly encourage the Trump administration to pursue international agreements with regard to this challenge,” Sullivan said. “The prevalence of marine debris on our shores is a chronic issue.”
While Trump urged other nations to do more, the U.S. government is one of two members of the G7 economic bloc that did not sign the G7’s Plastics Charter on marine waste earlier this year, although the U.S. has participated in subsequent meetings on the charter.
Trump said the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement to replace NAFTA is the first U.S. trade agreement that includes commitments from the parties to address land- and sea-based pollution and improve waste management and said it would be in other trade pacts.
At the White House event, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., urged Trump to include similar language in a trade agreement being negotiated with the Philippines.
“Everyone from scientists to journalists to fishermen to coastal industries and international corporations are sounding the alarm about plastic trash and other marine debris polluting our oceans,” said Whitehouse, who is co-chair of the Senate Oceans Caucus. “It’s time to protect our precious marine ecosystems and coastal economies from this threat.”
In his comments, the president criticized other countries for putting waste into the oceans.
“This dumping has happened for years and even for decades,” Trump said. “Previous administrations did absolutely nothing to take on the foreign countries responsible. We’ve already notified most of them, and we’ve notified them very strongly.”
He spoke about how “a vast, tremendous, unthinkable amount of garbage is floating right into our coast, in particular along the West Coast. And we’re charged with removing it, which is a very unfair situation. It comes from other countries very far away.”
“Every year, over 8 million tons of garbage is dumped into our beautiful oceans by many countries of the world,” Trump said. “That includes China, that includes Japan, and that includes many, many countries.”
Studies from groups like Ocean Conservancy have said a majority of the waste that enters the ocean comes from rapidly developing economies in Asia, where waste management systems are not keeping pace with big increases in plastics use.
That group’s research says China, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam account for about half of the plastic waste in the ocean.
Some environmental advocates, however, criticize the United States for its own low plastic recycling rates and not making the kind of specific commitments and actions to increase recycling contained in the European Union’s plastics strategy.