Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse was joined by local environmental groups at a press conference Monday morning in Middletown to discuss the crisis of plastic pollution in our oceans and highlight federal legislation and local actions being taken to address the threat.
Dave McLaughlin, executive director of Clean Ocean Access, hosted the event at their headquarters. “Earth Day worldwide started a campaign to end plastic pollution,” said McLaughlin. He reported on an event Sunday in Portsmouth where Clean Ocean Access, joined by five local Girl Scout Troops, removed 1,425 pounds of marine debris from Pheasant Drive beach.
“Breaking free from plastic and saying no to single-use plastic is imperative to improve the health of our oceans and our environment,” said McLaughlin.
Sen. Whitehouse echoed that sentiment. “Every year we dump five shopping bags of plastic trash per foot of coastline into our oceans,” said Whitehouse. “If we keep it up, if nothing changes, if we just go with status quo then by 2050 there’s going to be more plastic waste in our ocean than there will be swimming fish. That’s not a world we should tolerate having to leave to our children.”
In addition to polluting our beaches, Whitehouse said, that plastic endangers marine life, ending up in the bellies of fish, and fouling the hulls of high-performance craft like those headed to Newport in May for the Volvo Ocean Race. McLaughlin noted that the last Volvo Ocean Race brought 130,000 visitors and added $140M to the state economy. Protecting our oceans, he said, is not just about “being kind to the fish,” but rather, “This all comes home to our ocean state in real economic value.”
Whitehouse talked about the sources of plastic pollution. “Studies show that the vast majority of the plastic comes from five or six Asian countries that have terrible upland waste disposal programs.” The senator’s Save Our Seas Act, coauthored with Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), passed the Senate by unanimous consent in 2017. The measure would boost the federal response to marine debris and enhance cooperation between the US and other nations in the issue.
Whitehouse told a reporter that the bill will be coming up for a hearing in the House shortly. He also described work with Sen. Sullivan to engage trade representatives on the issue. “If you can get these Asian countries that compete with us to clean up their act, two things happen: One, it’s a more level playing field for American companies that are behaving well. And two, we actually have companies that are very very good at upland waste disposal. So it actually opens a market for American business overseas to meet the upland waste disposal needs that we I hope will be demanding of these countries.”
“The work that we’re doing requires global and national and state and local action,” said Janet Coit, RI DEM Director. Coit thanked Whitehouse for his work at getting bipartisan support for this issue at the federal level, and acknowledged the efforts of local environmental organizations. “The fact that we care so much about this place means that our marine trades have been on the cutting edge of reducing discharges and are interested in helping reduce plastics. It means that we have Boy Scouts and Girl Scout troops out doing clean ups. I certainly pledge to continue to try to uphold and enforce our environmental laws so that we can strengthen the whole web of people who are working to protect and celebrate our wonderful environment, our beautiful oceans.”
RI Clean Water Action director Johnathan Berard discussed work his organization has done to quantify the threat. “This is not just something that’s happening in the middle of swirling gyres in the middle of the ocean,” he said, “it’s happening right here in our own backyard.” Berard brought along samples from a “trash trawl” that found plastics and microplastics in samples collected along the length of Narragansett Bay.
Microplastics are the result of the breakdown of larger items through the action of wind, waves, and sun, said Berard, and they pose a particular risk to marine life because of their small size. “They end up like chemical sponges absorbing pollutants in the water, where they’re ingested by seabirds, by fish, by shellfish that mistake them for a meal, and they end up in our food chain.”
Bearard showed a reporter a jar of material collected just off India Point near the hurricane barrier in Providence. “You can see there’s big chunks of plastic, there’s polystyrene foam, there’s what is clearly film plastic. We found fishing line and also other gnarly things.”
“We’ll never be able to remove enough plastic from the environment to keep up with the amount that we as a society is putting in,” said Berard. “Instead we need to enact meaningful source reduction strategies to keep single use plastics out of the waste stream entirely. Reduce Reuse Recycle isn’t just some clever slogan that we learned in school, it’s actually an order of operations.”