Eleven years ago, almost to the month, I was on an island the size of a parking lot off the coast of California. My middle school peers and I were laboriously sifting through the sand to find and count the number of plastic particles. As a young fourteen-year-old I was amazed to witness firsthand what we found. What appeared at first glance to be a pristine Pacific Ocean sandy beach was littered with millions of tiny bits of plastics. We found everything from water bottles, fishing wire, cigarettes, and even a few dead birds with stomachs full of plastic. It hit me then and there, I wondered, “If this island off the coast of one of the environmentally conscious places in the world is like this, what about the places with little to no environmental protection standards? Is there a way we stop plastic pollution?”. Little did the fourteen-year-old me know just over a decade later I would be living in the nation’s capital interning at the EPA trying to solve this exact problem.
Perhaps you’d be as surprised as I was when I first learned this fact. Since large-scale plastic manufacturing began in the 1950’s over 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced. That’s equivalent in weight to 1,000,000,000 elephants or 25,000 Empire State buildings! Moreover, 50% of this plastic has been produced in just the last thirteen years and less than 10% of it has been recycled, most of it has found its way into landfills or natural environments such as rivers, forests, and oceans. The primary culprit of this global environmental catastropheis single use plastics. Single Use Plastics (SUPs), such as shopping bags, straws, and candy wrappers, are used on average only twelve minutes before being thrown away. To me, the scariest thing about plastics (besides the increasingly exponential up-tick in their production and use) is a process called bioaccumulation.
You see, when a plastic bottle makes its way into the ocean the combination of ocean currents and sun rays break-up the bottle into hundreds of thousands of tiny plastic particles calledmicroplastics. These microplastics are then eaten by everything from a tuna fish to a pelican and a shrimp to a whale. Then the food chain happens. As small organisms who have eaten plastic are eaten by bigger ones, the amount of plastic and associated chemicals accumulate in the body of the predator. The higher up the food chain, the more plastics and chemicals accumulated in the predator’s body. And who is at the top of the food chain? Well, us- Humans. Over three billion people worldwide rely on fish as their primary source of protein and this number is only growing. This all begs some important questions. How does eating plastic-laden food effect the human body?How are plastics effecting global fish stocks? How can plastics be stopped? These are the questions the office I intern at, the EPA’s Office of Global Affairs and Policy (OGAP), are trying to answer along with our partners across the US government with multilateral organizations such as the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
I started at the EPA in May of 2018. Since day one I have been immensely impressed by the amount of passion, specialized expertise, and creativity across the Agency. Never have I worked in such a place where everyone was so friendly and kind to their colleagues (and the planet!) but also immensely professional in their conduct and deliverables. The EPA is regarded worldwide as the gold standard of an environmental protection agencyso much so that every month delegations from all around the world come to the EPA to meet with various offices in order to learn best practices they can replicate in their country.
Since I came on board I have been working to support OGAP’s efforts to further environmentally-conscious multilateral policy work with the United Nations (UN) and Group of Seven (G7). I’ve done so through helping prepare our delegates for UN Environment Programand G7meetings, editing and expanding a community-focused manual on how to reduce marine plastic litter, desk reviews on everything from scientific studies on the impact of China’s January 2018 import ban on plasticsto US government efforts to export emerging green technologies, and organizing and presenting at brown bag lecture explaining the field of environmental security, just to name a few projects. Among the most rewarding and impactful project I’ve engaged in during my time at the EPA has been working with my colleagues to create an internationally-focused version of the EPA’s US-domestic Trash Free Waters program. The Trash Free Waters program is a community-driven, stakeholder-based, solutions-focused approach to reduce marine litter through solid waste management; specifically, by preventing and reducing trash from entering into waterways and eventually, the ocean. This program will not only educate people worldwide about the marine plastic litter issue but also give them the tools in an easy to follow ‘cookbook style’ guide to effectively address the issue and protect their local watershed.
I could go on about the various projects I’ve done, incredibly environmental protection warriors I’ve got to know, the stinky wastewater treatment plant I visited, reading emails from the National Security Council, meetings with the folks from the Department of State to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or how it was being at the EPA the day Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned but instead I’d like to highlight the two biggest takeaways I’ve had. First, the EPA is an impressive organization that is incredibly humble yet feverishly working to solve some of humanity’s greatest transgenerational challenges in a way that incorporates all stakeholders and data. Secondly, environmental protection is more than just reducing pollution it’s a way of life and a value set. It is a means to protectandenhance the quality of life for our generation and to have the compassion and foresight to think of the ones to come.
Thankfully, there is a rapidly growing global consciousness of the marine plastic litter issue. Magazines from National Geographicto Vogue, governments from Rwandato India, and private businesses from Coca-Colato 3D-printing start-ups. Moreover, a concept of how to better reformat and optimize the consumer economy, called the circular economy,is gaining steam. A circular economy is an alternative to the traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose) in which products are manufactured in such a way that they minimize the use of virgin, environmentally harmful materials and methods and maximize the ability of a product’s components to be easily harvested for reuse. NGOs such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, investment groups such as the Closed Loop Foundation, and tech-focused organizations such as The Ocean Cleanupare leading the charge in pursuit of tackling the marine plastic litter. In a kind of ‘David and Goliath’ situation, these leaders are hard at work to defeat a giant problem that affects all of us on our shared home, the Pale Blue Dot. As with any change, opportunity is a byproduct. For those early adopters who realize the circular economy revolutionhas already begun and act in such a way to benefit from it, the rewards are enormous. And I’m not just talking about innovative entrepreneurs making millions or being that cool kid sporting a backpack made of derelict fishnets, this applies to folks across the gamut. Women’s rights groups, international clothing companies, local governments, farmers, techies, academics and everyone in between can and will benefit. So, the ball is in your court. To do or not to do, that is the question.
Ultimately, it takes a village and what is truly needed is for all of us to do our part. No effort is too small. The revolution has already begun