National coalition urges Biden to stop throwaway plastics that kill and injure marine life

A spinner dolphin is entangled in a sheet of plastic in waters off the West Coast. Dolphins, manatees and sea turtles are killed and maimed by plastic debris in high numbers off the coasts of Florida and neighboring states. Credit: Jackson Kowalski, Pacific Whale Foundation

With plastics pollution rising and recycling in decline, a coalition of 551 environment and health groups called on President-Elect Joe Biden Tuesday to shut down production of throwaway plastics, from single-use water bottles to foam, take-out food containers.

In an eight-point “Presidential Plastic Action Plan” unveiled in an online conference Tuesday, the Plastic Pollution Coalition urged the incoming administration to stop expansion of plastic production facilities and make use of up-to-date science and technology to assess the safety of plastic products in the environment and for humans.

It also calls on Biden’s team to direct the federal government, one of the nation’s largest consumers of products, to stop buying single-use plastic items such as disposable water bottles, disposable shopping bags, plastic straws and polysterene foam containers, and to stop subsidizing producers of plastics. The coalition wants to promote widespread use of reusable and refillable containers, such as cloth shopping bags and durable water bottles.

A Greenpeace supporter projects a message onto U.S. Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Washington, D.C., Monday night urging President-elect Joe Biden to stop the production of throwaway plastic products. Credit: Tim Aubry

The coalition, organized under the hashtag #PlasticFreePresident, includes several groups based in or with chapters in Florida, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Riverkeepers, and Surfrider Foundation.

“President Biden can use today’s plan as a blueprint,” said Julie Teel Simmonds, senior attorney with the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, adding that Biden and his team have signaled support for the goals. “The petrochemical industry is not taking responsibility but instead is pushing a massive expansion.”

“The problem is getting much worse very quickly,” said Oregon U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, sponsoring legislation to “Break Free From Plastics.” “Our planet cannot afford inaction.”

Only 8 percent of plastics are recycled, while the rest is burned in incinerators, buried in landfills, or is floating free in the world’s oceans, Merkley said.

Angela Howe, legal director of California-based Surfrider Foundation, said 11 million metric tons of plastic waste reach the oceans every year and do not decay there.

Another 12.6 million kilograms of plastic trash is exported to Malaysia, said environmental engineer Jan Dell, founder of Last Beach Cleanup based in California. Each American generates n average about 216 pounds of plastic waste each year, Dell added.

Sharon LeVigne of Louisiana and Dianne Wilson of Texas said plastics plants pollute the air and water of neighboring poor, minority communities in which they typically are built, and the pollution sickens residents, they said.

A plastic strap left its mark on this dolphin calf, which was freed from the strap and treated at Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The aquarium supplied this photo.

Pete Myers, adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University and founder/chief scientist of Environmental Health News, said most plastics have not been adequately tested for long-term effects on human health, while some contain ingredients found to disrupt male hormones and decrease sperm count.

Florida, with 1,350 miles of coastlines along the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, could play a big role in one of the recommendations: to reduce the amount of plastic fishing line and other plastic fishing waste that resides in nearshore waters and often chokes or ensnares marine animals and sea birds.

According to an analysis by Oceana, an ocean-advocacy group, Florida and its neighboring states find plastic trash in more dead and maimed marine animals – chiefly rare manatees and sea turtles — than any other region of the country. Recreational, monofilament fishing line is the top culprit, according to the date from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Like the Plastic Pollution Coalition, Oceana is calling on the Biden administration to reverse key cutbacks in air-quality and water-quality regulations ordered by President Trump and to vigorously enforce the Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protection acts.

“We’re really just asking President Biden to enforce the laws that we have,” Simmonds concluded. “It’s been backwards too long and I’m optimistic this administration can set us on the right course.”

The speakers acknowledged that Florida state government has not acted to ban single-use plastics but has prohibited local governments concerned about plastics pollution from adopting local bans.