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Editorial: Keep pressure on to reduce plastic consumption and pollution

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Harbor View ingested marine debris.jpeg (copy)

Pieces of marine debris passed by the green turtle named Harbor View included a deflated balloon. S.C. Aquarium/Provided

Those most concerned about the health of our oceans and their inhabitants have grown increasingly alarmed about the accumulation of plastic pollutants, and a new report provides further evidence that they’re right. Last month, the conservation nonprofit Oceana released a troubling analysis of marine mammals and turtles found dead or stranded between 2009 and 2020: Almost 1,800 of them either had eaten or were ensnared in plastic trash.

The analysis looked at about 40 species, including manatees, turtles, whales, sea lions, seals and dolphins, and was prompted by both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. Loggerhead turtles, South Carolina’s official reptile, which lay a vast number of nests along our coastline, were particularly distressed, suffering from plastic bags, fishing lines, deflated balloons, packing straps and food wrappers. The report did not examine the effects of microplastic particles, also abundant in the water and known to be ingested by animals across the food web — and eventually humans.

Oceana’s findings added a grim, authoritative perspective to what many already have seen. Kelly Thorvalson, who manages the S.C. Aquarium’s conservation programs, told reporter Chloe Johnson that 39 turtles treated by the aquarium’s Sea Turtle Care Center had ingested plastic. Of those, 34 were brought in during the past five years. “This plastic pollution issue is at a crisis level, and the convenience of these single-use plastics is simply not worth the environmental impact,” Ms. Thorvalson told Ms. Johnson.

So we were encouraged last week to see Sen. Lindsey Graham join fellow Sens. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, to introduce the Unify Nations in Trash Elimination for our Oceans Act. If it passes, the U.S. government would work with international partners to “finance promising projects that promote the sustainable management of materials and reduce the amount of plastic and other waste polluting the world’s oceans.”

Mr. Graham said the bill is “an effort by America to put our money where our mouth is and will be used to leverage other nations to contribute so we have an all-hands-on-deck approach to dealing with the overwhelming problem presented by plastics in the ocean.” This bipartisan approach to tackling ocean plastics has won praise from such environmental heavyweights as the World Wildlife Fund, the International Conservation Caucus Foundation Group and the Ocean Conservancy.

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If passed, the so-called UNITE Act would direct the secretary of state to work with federal agencies, other countries and international groups to establish a trust fund to prevent and reduce marine debris and plastic pollution. The fund would give grants to national and local governments, nonprofits and others. The United States would contribute $150 million in each of its first two years. It’s a start, and if the trust fund can show success, more money from these and other sources is sure to follow.

Oceana notes that half of all the world’s plastic was made in the past 15 years and about a dump truck load’s worth makes its way into the oceans every minute, creating a global crisis in a relatively short period. Plastics float on the sea’s surface, wash up on our most remote coastlines, emerge from melting Arctic ice and rest on our deepest ocean floors.

While federal action is welcome, more is needed, beginning with a more deliberate effort by all of us to limit single-use plastics in our daily lives and to recycle those plastics we do use when possible. Business leaders, from the smallest to largest companies, can and should focus on alternatives to single-use plastics and not simply wait for government to regulate them.

Local and state governments also have a role to play, as we have seen along the coast, with many cities, towns and counties banning certain plastic packaging because of its potential environmental harm. As voters and consumers, we also can reward elected leaders and business owners who take action on this problem.

Public pressure and private-sector innovation successfully addressed the scourge of chlorofluorocarbons a generation ago, after scientists discovered their popular use was creating a dangerous hole in the Earth’s ozone layer. Single-use plastics present a different and more ubiquitous type of problem than CFCs, but we retain our faith in our collective will to find a solution.

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