FORT WORTH, Texas — On September 18, 2019, Rep. Micheal T. McCaul (R-TX) introduced H.R. 4636: The PLASTICS Act. The bill would, in effect, authorize the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to advance the federal government’s efforts to reduce pollution in the world’s oceans. It would primarily allow the United States International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) to invest in integrated waste management systems in developing countries.
Every day, toxic chemicals enter our oceans. Either various industries dump chemicals on purpose or individual sources’ pollution runs-off into the ocean. Chemicals such as oil, mercury, lead, pesticides and other heavy metals are present in water composition now more than ever. Contaminating water supplies and our food chain, the chemicals inevitably impact the marine environment and the life involved. If humans are exposed to these toxins for extended periods, they can develop dangerous health problems. These include hormonal issues, reproductive issues, damage to our nervous system and kidney problems.
Additionally, bacteria turn metals like mercury into their most toxic form (methylmercury). Plankton absorbs the substance, which fish then eat. Eventually, the fish may end up on somebody’s plate. If exposed to this toxin, humans can develop Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s or heart disease. Pollution that finds itself on beaches and shores can cause severe reactions and illness through physical contact or water ingestion. Many common pollutants can lead to stomach aches, diarrhea and rashes.
These symptoms are curable if a person has the money, transportation and time for treatment. However, in impoverished rural areas, simple illnesses such as diarrhea can lead to more dire situations. In fact, in four billion cases of diarrhea, there were approximately two million recorded deaths. Children younger than 5 make up the majority of the death toll. According to UNICEF, 6,000 children die every day from preventable, water-produced, pollution-induced diseases.
Connections Between Oceanic Pollution and Poverty
Much of the pollution that enters rivers start on land and eventually drifts into the water as runoffs. Steams, rivers and tributaries all eventually lead to the ocean, carrying their pollutants with them. This phenomenon is clearly evident, for example, in the Indian Ocean.
Three of the world’s 10 rivers carry the vast majority of the world’s plastic to the oceans. They are all in India — the Meghna, Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers. The Ganges (Ganga) river runs through northern India and is sacred to those who practice Hinduism. The basin is at times considered a part of an even larger river system that consists of the Meghna and Brahmaputra rivers. Together, the three make up the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) River Basin. Eventually, the GBM River Basin enters the Bay of Bengal, which then empties into the Indian Ocean.
Artisanal fishing (or small-scale fishing) provides food and livelihoods for tens of millions of people around the world, particularly in developing countries. Of the approximately 35 million fishers worldwide, 90% of fishing jobs are small-scale. When the fish in the ocean are infected, deformed and dying away, both the food and the industry nosedives. When patches of marine debris (extending up to 10 million square kilometers) delay or completely block the fishers’ routes, that means they find no food to sell or to feed their families that day.
Since fishing sustains the appetites of so many people, poisoning is inevitable, especially when the fish are caught in a polluted area. Fishermen and their families can then eat the bad fish exposed to pollution, knowingly or not. This, of course, leads to unnecessary deaths and serious health conditions in both children and adults.
The PLASTICS Act
The PLASTICS Act seeks to alleviate the degraded conditions of the world’s oceans, especially around developing countries. Section three of H.R 4636 (Statement of Policy) states, “it is the policy of the United States to consult, partner and coordinate with the governments of foreign countries, international organizations, private and civil society entities… [to]prevent and reduce marine debris and plastic waste including through reduced consumption, greater transparency in [the]global trade of plastic waste and support for integrated waste management systems in developing countries.”
The bill would, thereby, support multilateral engagement in environmental clean-up and pollution prevention policies. However, this would not only directly benefit the environment. The PLASTICS Act would also take a step toward ensuring the survival and thriving of those who subsist off of small-scale fishing operations. Even though sick seas primarily affect those in developing countries, nobody is immune. Fish in every part of every ocean are at risk of ingesting plastics and toxins. Therefore, on a grander scale, the bill would work to protect the seafood that ends up on anyone’s plate and in anyone’s stomach.
The Current Situation
H.R. 4636, first introduced in September of 2019, is still a long way from fruition. Yet, while the PLASTICS Act is still far from the finish line, there are dozens of NGOs that have scattered themselves around the globe in an effort to heal our oceans. The ocean is a lifeline, especially for those subsisting from the food it provides, and although pollution continues to grow, the support to heal it has grown as well.
– Aaron Samperio