The Save Our Seas 2.0 Act purports to offer a bipartisan solution to the unthinkable amount of plastic — 11 million metric tons, a figure predicted to nearly triple by 2040 — that enters the ocean every year. It seems Congress would agree.
On Thursday, the federal bill was expedited to the floor of the House of Representatives and passed on suspension, a procedure typically reserved for noncontroversial bills. In the less than 15 minutes of debate to precede the vote, no dissenting views were raised. The bill has returned to the Senate — it passed unanimously there in January — and is expected to be signed into law by President Donald Trump, who also signed the Save Our Seas Act of 2018 into law. Then, once in effect, the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act will not do much at all.
Outside of Congress, the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act has faced steeper scrutiny from environmentalists who see it as an extension of decades’ worth of failed policies that assume the plastics crisis can be solved by innovating recycling and waste management — and who are suspicious of support from the plastics and chemical industries, not known for their enthusiastic commitment to eradicating plastic pollution.
“It is so woefully inadequate to the scale of the crisis that it is really very little more than a distraction endorsed by the plastics industry to keep our attention away from the focusing on real solutions to the problem,” says Brett Hartl, the government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the 40 environmental organizations to sign a letter, addressed to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, in opposition to the bill.
The bill primarily aims to clean marine plastic pollution in a few ways. It funds studies, pilot projects, and reports to better understand and develop solutions for the marine plastic debris crisis, such as a program to incentivize fishers to collect plastic debris, and creates a “Genius Prize for Save Our Seas Innovations” to encourage innovations to reduce plastic waste in the ocean. It also establishes the public-private Marine Debris Foundation that will support the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration in preventing and removing plastics from the ocean under the 2006 Marine Debris Act, while expanding the annual funding for the Marine Debris Act from $10 million to $15 million per year. Many of these strategies, while not inherently bad, are focused solely on cleaning up plastic waste, neatly removing responsibility from the plastics industry.
“There’s a reason the plastics industry likes this. It’s because they don’t really have to do anything,” says Hartl.
In narrowly focusing on marine plastic debris, the law fails to address the behavior that is at the root of the plastic crisis: the fossil-fuel intensive production of plastics. It does nothing to move the United States off plastic, including single-use and disposable plastics, while banking on the untested promise that we’ll find a solution to plastic waste. Since the 1960s, when the mass production of plastics began, only 9 percent of plastics produced have been recycled. A recent NPR/PBS Frontline investigation found that for the past 30 years, oil and gas companies, which manufacture plastics, have pushed for recycling as a strategy to sell more plastic, while knowing it’s ineffectual.
Shannon Smith, who works at the FracTracker Alliance, a nonprofit that monitors and communicates the risks of oil and gas development, describes the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act as “the petrochemical industry’s latest attempt to place the focus of the plastics crisis at the very end of the plastic lifecycle: the end-user and disposal of plastic.” Smith notes that the oil and gas industry has long promoted anti-littering campaigns, recycling campaigns, and personal carbon footprint campaigns — all strategies that divert attention from the production to disposal.
The Save Our Seas 2.0 Act does represent an improvement from the original draft of the bill, which included a provision directing the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to study chemical recycling. This term generally doesn’t refer to recycling but the conversion of plastic to fossil fuels, often through gasification or pyrolysis — pollutive processes that involve applying intense heat. This technology has been touted by the petrochemical industry as a way to convert plastics to plastics, but this has not proven to be possible at scale. Chemical recycling technology could still be supported by this legislation, however through the “Genius Prize for Save Our Seas Innovations” — which Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., tried and failed to have removed. Udall proposed five other amendments to strengthen the bill, including prohibiting the sale of certain single-use plastics beginning in 2022, none of which were voted on.
The law fails to address the behavior that is at the root of the plastic crisis: the fossil-fuel intensive production of plastics.
Despite the documented health harms across the entire life cycle of plastics, the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act “still positions the problem of plastic pollution as being a strictly marine litter problem, which is just patently not true,” says Jane Patton, a senior campaigner at the Center for International Environmental Law. Patton notes that the law does not once mention “public health,” overlooking many of the ways plastic pollution harms humans before it enters the oceans. To address many of those impacts would require transitioning off and more strictly regulating the production of plastics.
Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., who introduced the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act to the House of Representatives, acknowledged that the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act cannot be the only solution in her remarks on the floor on Thursday: “The fossil fuel and plastic industries are deeply connected, and plastics contribute a significant share of industrial emissions in the United States. A problem this pervasive — a problem of global magnitude — cannot be solved with a single bill.”
Bonamici is also a co-sponsor of the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, which was introduced in February by Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., and Udall. This law is designed to hasten the transition off plastics, including by placing a moratorium on permitting new plastic facilities until the Environmental Protection Agency better regulates these facilities and banning some single-use plastics. This act would also place more stringent limits on the billions of pounds of plastic waste the U.S. exports to poorer countries.
While not curbing exports and the role the U.S. has played in exacerbating the plastics crisis on other shores, the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act specifies that the United States should “partner with, encourage, advise and facilitate” efforts with other governments on managing plastic waste. “The assumption that the United States has the best practices on waste management and [should] go out and generously below best practices on other countries is wildly presumptuous, and I would say, erroneous,” says Patton.
A recent investigation by the New York Times revealed that the American Chemistry Council, a trade group representing chemical and fossil fuel industries, has been lobbying to influence trade agreements that would weaken Kenya’s strict rules on plastic to accept more recyclables from the U.S. Notably, the American Chemistry Council is an outspoken supporter of the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act.
Even the ways the Save Our Seas 2.0 Act addresses the marine litter side of the plastic problem may leave openings for industry influence over solutions, according to Judith Enck, a former regional EPA administrator under President Barack Obama and the founder of the advocacy group Beyond Plastics. Enck raised concerns about the central function of the law establishing the Marine Debris Foundation. In particular, Enck notes that this foundation can accept an unlimited amount of private donations, such as from the fossil fuel and chemical industries.
“I feel like it is a setup for future problems because it’s better for the chemical industry to issue reports and publications under the antiseptic name of the Marine Debris Foundation,” says Enck. “So I think we’re going to have to brace ourselves for a lot of greenwashing from this foundation.”
Perhaps, one of the biggest problems with the act is its potential to sap urgency from the plastics crisis. “I think the danger of the Save Our Seas [2.0] Act is that it can give the impression that we fixed the problem. When in fact we haven’t really addressed it at all,” says Alex Truelove, director of the Zero Waste Campaign at U.S. Public Interest Research Group. In reality, the plastics crisis will remain largely untouched — at the bottom of the ocean, in the upper atmosphere, in our soils and bodies — until the rapid flow of plastics into the world is stopped.