Plastics and Impacts on Endangered Species: What Role Might Congress Play in the 116th Congress?

Kim Diana Connolly and Rebecca Carden

Every year, 18 billion pounds of plastic waste flows into the world’s oceans––think of it as the equivalent to five grocery bags of plastic trash sitting on every foot of coastline around the world.

In addition to the effect that plastic pollution has on humans, such plastics also harm nonhuman animals (hereinafter “animals”), including endangered species. Experts reported in 2015 that “[t]he number of species known to have been affected by either entanglement or ingestion of plastic debris has doubled since 1997, from 267 to 557 species among all groups of wildlife.”  Last year’s United Nation’s World Environment Day (June 5, 2018)––the key day for the United Nations to encourage worldwide environmental awareness and action––chose as its theme the effort to beat plastic pollution.

Plastics’ prevalence in the environment likely make them the most immediate threat to endangered species today. Plastic waste threatens species who occupy wetlands, marshes, estuaries, and oceans. These are not only places where endangered species spend half their lives; they are also places where vast amounts of discarded plastics end up. Why is there so much? Forty percent of plastics are single-use (used once and then thrown away). Globally, less than a fifth of the plastic produced is recycled. This number is lower in the United States, where we only recycle 9 percent of plastics.

A number of bills were introduced in the 115th Congress that touched on the need to control where plastics end up––but they did not result in any overarching laws addressing plastic waste. H.R. 3768 was an effort to reduce plastic water bottle usage in the National Parks. It stated that regional park directors should “establish a program to recycle and reduce the use of disposable plastic bottles.Cosponsored only by Democrats, it was referred to subcommittee but never considered.

More successfully, an appropriations rider addressing plastic waste was offered as an amendment to H.R. 5895. In the shadow of several national debates, Congress enacted language in section 210 that directed “[a]ll agencies and offices funded by this division that contract with a food service provider or providers shall confer and coordinate with such food service provider or providers, in consultation with disability advocacy groups, to eliminate or reduce plastic waste, including waste from plastic straws, explore the use of biodegradable items, and increase recycling and composting opportunities.”

It is not as though Congress is unaware of the plastics crisis. For example, in June 8, 2018, the House of Representatives recognized World Oceans Day, including remarks by Representative Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR).Her comments included essential facts about plastics, discussing how the eight million metric tons of plastic that end up in the world’s oceans each year contributed to the oceans becoming more acidic due to pollution, and the devastating effect that is having on marine life. She also pointed out the potentially deleterious results that this could have on humans––much of the seafood that we take from the seas for consumption could become toxic. Similarly, Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) issues a plea to rid the oceans of single-use plastics. These and other implorations later resulted in S. 3508, the Save Our Seas Act of 2018 (SOS Act).

The SOS Act amends the Marine Debris Act by requiring National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to address both land and sea sources of marine debris as well as to promote international action to reduce marine debris. Additionally, NOAA is authorized to make money available to assist in the cleanup of severe marine debris events. Furthermore, the bill urges the administration to support research regarding bio-based and other alternatives to reduce solid waste, work globally to reduce marine debris, research economic impacts of marine debris, and to consider marine debris in future trade agreements. The SOS Act also requires the expansion of the Interagency Marine Debris Coordinating Committee to include a senior official from the State Department and the Department of the Interior as well as reauthorizing the Marine Debris Program and enforcing laws about marine debris originating from ships.

Legislative actions are not just on the federal level. For example, many individual cities and states have passed laws about plastics, although most are limited to single-use plastic bags. The states of California and Hawaii both have a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags. California went a step further by charging 10 cents for recycled paper bags, reusable plastic bags, and compostable bags at specific locations. The cities of Austin, Texas; Boston, Massachusetts; Chicago, Illinois; and Seattle, Washington, all have plastic bag bans and Boulder, Colorado; Brownsville, Texas; Montgomery County, Maryland; New York, New York; Portland, Maine; and Washington, D.C., all charge plastic bag fees. And other local governments including many major cities are continuing to introduce such legislation.

The focus area on plastic waste for state laws remains specifically on plastic bottles. The following states have mandatory recycling for plastic bottles: California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. However, recycling is not a complete answer, with prominent scientists recently noting that “end-of-life treatment options for plastic solid waste are in practice quite limited.”

Why are laws important? Two of the main issues facing endangered species from plastics in the environment are ingestion and entrapment. Further issues arriving from plastics in the environment can affect more than a single marine mammal or sea bird as plastics can threaten the way that animals develop and breed and thereby affect an entire population’s future. These effects would have special significance in a species already at the precipice of extinction. The presence of plastics in the marine environment has shown to alter gene expression in both male and female fish as well as altering endocrine system function. Additionally, the cascading effect of plastics on the environment and its occupants may potentially lead to the disruption of key ecosystem functions.

The seven varieties of sea turtle, all of which are considered vulnerable and nearly all endangered, are extremely impacted by plastic waste and pollution. Sea turtles are thought to be one of the most often adversely affected species from marine plastic debris. They feed primarily on jellyfish, and much of the plastic that litters the oceans today, like single-use plastic bags, is difficult for turtles to distinguish from dietary mainstay. Plastic pollution is, for example, a severe stressor to juvenile endangered loggerhead turtles in the North Atlantic. Although the health of sea turtles may not seem relevant to the overall health of the oceans, they play a critical role with their contributions to the health of sea grasses and corals, which in turn keeps the species that rely on those environments stable and healthy.

Moreover, recent research has shown the presence of a newer threat to the marine environment from microplastics. One study looked at 102 turtles from 3 different oceans and microplastics were present in the gut of all 102. This finding raised new concerns about the presence of plastics in turtles, as it is unknown how the microplastics will affect the turtles long term. Some proposed legislative responses to microplastics have emerged, and the authors of a recent study have suggested that “[l]egislation should form part of a compulsory policy framework on a national scale. It can also provide information for researchers to study their eco-toxicity effects on the environment, and more importantly, the human health risks carried by the products. In addition, this could improve waste management practices and avoid buildup of plastic waste in the environment.”

As the links between plastic waste and endangered species enter further into public awareness, more robust congressional action should ensue. The SOS Act in 2018 was a step in the right direction. As of the date of this article, however, no major legislation holistically addressing plastic waste has been introduced in the 116th Congress. The future success of the Endangered Species Act could be undercut by this threat unless significant federal action is taken in the near future.

    Kim Diana Connolly and Rebecca Carden

    Published: March 15, 2019


    Kim Diana Connolly is a professor of law and vice dean at the University at Buffalo School of Law, where she teaches UB’s Environmental Advocacy Clinic and Animal Law Clinic, as well as other courses. See more at www.law.buffalo.edu/faculty/facultyDirectory/ConnollyKimDiana.html.

    Rebecca Carden is a M.S. candidate in Anthrozoology from Canisius College, serving as a graduate intern in the Animal Law Clinic at University at Buffalo School of Law for her capstone course. See www.linkedin.com/in/rebeccacarden/.