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ICYMI: Marine life threatened by foreign waste

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Panama City News Herald
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler
November 15, 2020

The world depends on a healthy marine environment. Our waterways and oceans provide food and resources that we all rely on, and they are critical for key industries, such as tourism and fishing. However, these resources and industries are being threatened by the rising tide of mismanaged solid waste flowing into the ocean, particularly from China and a few other Asian countries.

Under President Trump’s leadership, the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) provides the strongest and most comprehensive set of environmental obligations of any U.S. trade agreement, providing the framework and accountability needed to effect real change with our North American partners.

Through the USMCA, we are creating jobs for Americans from all walks of life, and for the first time ever, we have enforceable environmental provisions that all parties must follow. One of USMCA’s most prominent goals is to protect coastal and marine environments from problems like marine litter.

To truly solve this problem, we must prevent trash from entering our waterways in the first place. Last week at an event at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, I unveiled the U.S. Federal Strategy for Addressing the Global Issue of Marine Litter, which provides a strategic model to prevent and reduce land-based sources of waste from entering our oceans. This strategy serves as a model for governments and the private sector alike to identify strategic methods for building capacity in systems to manage and recycle waste and litter.

Roughly 80 percent of marine debris comes from land-based sources: littering, dumping, storm waste discharges and extreme natural events. Five countries in Asia—China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam—account for over half of the plastic waste placed into the ocean. A recent study estimates up to 95 percent of plastic waste transported by major rivers starts from just 10 rivers—eight of them located in Asia, with the top polluting rivers being in China.

EPA is an international leader that other nations look to for guidance on addressing marine litter, and we recognize international partnerships are vital to solving this global problem. We have developed a set of waste management recommendations that will enable us to effectively address the global marine litter problem, with a focus on four pillars:

  1. Building capacity for better waste and litter management systems, including through improving infrastructure, government coordination, and public education and engagement.
  2.  Incentivizing the global recycling market in partnership with the private sector.
  3. Promoting research and development for innovative solutions and technology.
  4. Promoting marine litter removal, including litter capture systems in seas, rivers and inland waterways.

EPA’s Trash Free Waters International program is helping countries address their marine litter problems by using these pillars to create a framework that specifically addresses their national and local needs. Trash Free Waters International uses a stakeholder-based approach that brings together national and local governments, communities, NGOs, and the private sector to identify marine litter problems and prioritize interventions that are cost-effective, practical and impactful.

Although the Trash Free Waters program began here in the United States, marine litter exists everywhere, and economically developing countries especially need expert assistance that the United States can provide. As a result, Trash Free Waters has expanded its mission to other nations in the Western Hemisphere. Projects in Jamaica, Panama and Peru are providing national governments with practical steps to understand and address the marine litter issue holistically, including how waste is managed, identifying gaps within their waste management systems, and prioritizing project implementation.

These countries are leveraging the help EPA has offered to develop and improve local trash collection and recycling systems, raise community awareness, and implement educational programs in schools. Our goal is to move from pilot programs to implementation, and the Trash Free Waters stakeholder-based process helps attract larger investments critical to establishing an economically sustainable and environmentally sound waste management system.

EPA is working with other federal agencies to engage countries through a number of international settings like the G7 and G20 Environmental Ministers’ meetings, the North American Commission on Environmental Cooperation, the Cartagena Convention’s Land Based Sources Protocol and the United Nations Environment Assembly. Together, we are sharing knowledge and collaborating to leverage resources and expertise to address this problem.

Solving the marine litter problem requires a global and comprehensive approach that includes the public sector, the private sector, NGOs, and society at-large. As we prepare to celebrate EPA’s 50th Anniversary in December, we look forward to continuing these partnerships and sharing ideas to find better ways to prevent and reduce marine waste to protect human health and our shared oceans.

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