International Day of Women and Girls in Science: A Sailing Story to Celebrate

By Erica Cirino, PPC Communications Manager & Author of Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisis

Today, on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, it’s important to celebrate and uplift women and girls who contribute to science—and not just once annually on this sanctioned day of acknowledgement, but every day of the year. And many women and girls have made and continue to make important contributions to our science-based understanding of the global plastic crisis.

In 2018, I worked as a photojournalist covering the plastic pollution beat, turning the tide on misunderstanding with truth. Much of my reporting brought me out to sea, where a significant accumulation of plastic items (an estimated 75 to 199 million metric tons of plastic) is breaking up into tiny particles—microplastics and nanoplastics—that harm people, wildlife, and plants, and is changing the very nature of our planet.

Around that time, friends alerted me of an opportunity to join a collective crew of 300 women from around the world assembled by the women-empowering scientific research organization eXXpedition, co-founded by female sea captain and ocean advocate Emily Penn. Each member of the larger group would be assigned to a smaller crew, sailing one voyage of many required to circumnavigate the globe, conducting research on plastic pollution along the way. 

Studying Plastic Problems and Solutions Starts on Land

Our crew collects sediment samples in a marina in Ponta Delgada, São Miguel.

When I was asked to join Leg 2 of eXXpedition’s “Round the World” voyage, sailing from the Azores to Antigua, I was elated. In October 2019, I traveled to Ponta Delgada, the capital municipality of the Azores, on the lush volcanic island of São Miguel. There, I boarded our ship, SV TravelEdge, and met our crew of 14, and learned of each woman’s diverse experiences and backgrounds. Most of the women had no prior bluewater sailing or academic scientific training. 

As hurricane season delayed our departure, our crew spent several days on the island collecting data with our science leader, Dr. Winnie Courtene-Jones of the University of Plymouth. She guided us in collecting sediment samples from beneath our ship in the marina, and in collecting data on the composition and origins of plastic pollution found across the island with research methods developed by Dr. Jenna Jambeck. We discovered that cigarette butts were the most common source of trash on San Miguel’s streets, in addition to other single-use plastic waste.
On land we also toured a waste management facility that collects an astounding 200–250 tons of waste per day from across the ecologically sensitive island, recycling 27% and throwing the rest in a growing landfill. But space for storing trash on islands is limited, and recycling facilities and landfills cause myriad forms of pollution and release greenhouse gases. Expanding operations is not a good option. And while an incinerator was proposed to burn growing mountains of waste, most locals we met spoke out against its construction, as it would only cause other kinds of hazardous pollution and fail to address the continued production of wasteful items—which is the real problem.

Landfill on São Miguel, Azores.

However, we observed many local zero-waste solutions already in existence, such as at the open-air Mercado da Graça where fresh foods and other goods are sold loose and in bulk. Our crew brought many of our provisions from this market, finding it very different from the island’s mainstream supermarkets—which we found filled with products wrapped in wasteful single-use plastic packaging.

Science at Sea Reveals the Fate of Plastic in the Ocean

Trawling for plastic particles on the sea surface using a manta trawl.

Finally, as rough weather subsided, our crew set off from São Miguel into the open ocean. At sea, we dove into a rigorous research schedule, trawling for plastic on the surface and searching for plastic particles in water pulled from the depths. Onboard, we learned to use scientific equipment to determine what kinds of plastics the particles had shed from, offering potential insights into their origins. Our findings were published in 2022 in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin.

Erica Cirino on a deck watch.

In addition to our research, life aboard TravelEdge required other types of hard work in order to keep the ship on course and to keep all crew members healthy. We each covered two rotating “watches” on deck per day, trimming sails and steering the ship, with rotating cooking and cleaning obligations. Our work was done in all kinds of weather, and I remember several urgent calls on deck to change the sails in violent squalls, many complete with severe rain, thunder, and lightning. But at sea, storms are often followed by rainbows…. 

Rainbow at sea following a storm.

An Island is Vulnerable to Plastic Pollution

Homemade traditional (plastic-free!) Antiguan breakfast.

When we reached Antigua and steadied our sea legs, which felt wobbly back on land, we connected with local people and groups to learn more about efforts the island was taking to address plastic pollution. This included a meeting with 100 people and the Antiguan Minister of Tourism to discuss the government’s approach to ending plastic pollution on the island—with much of it caused by the sale of single-use plastic items, like we’d observed on São Miguel.

Eventually our crew cleared the ship for the next round of women to take over, and after hugging out my goodbyes, I rented a room at an Antiguan woman’s home for a few days. My hostess was an elder named Chrys. Over a delicious homecooked (and plastic-free!) Antiguan breakfast, she generously spoke with me about how, in her lifetime, she had witnessed local people, culture, and foods being lost as the climate crisis shifted peoples’ priorities and made it harder and more expensive to live, farm, and fish on the island—with plastic and other kinds of pollution, as well as exploitative forms of tourism compounding social and ecological harms. Her story unfortunately resonated with others I have heard from people on other islands and coastlines—places especially vulnerable to the consequences of human-made disasters.

Female-Led Science Illuminates Global Crisis

Skimming the sea surface for small marine organisms.

As recently as five years ago, the plastic pollution crisis was largely still inaccurately portrayed and misunderstood as an issue that starts and ends with “litter” in our oceans. Today, we know this is far from the truth. In reality, industries’ production of plastic harms the entire planet, from the highest mountain peaks to the deepest ocean  trenches, impacting everything and everyone.

At the time eXXpedition launched “Round the World” (which was unfortunately cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but continued virtually), research on the massive problem of plastic particles in the oceans and other ecosystems was just ramping up. Then and now, women and other underrepresented groups have led impactful and important plastic science that shows us the truth and supports real solutions to plastic pollution.

Many of the women involved in plastic pollution research also importantly show us that not all scientists wear lab coats. Of the women who sailed with me across the Atlantic, only a handful had what are considered formal science backgrounds, and yet we all contributed to research on land and at sea with eXXpedition. Accessible community or civilian science projects like this one have played an extremely important role in gathering essential data on plastic pollution, and prove that we all can contribute to collective understanding by closely observing our natural world.

Microplastic from the Atlantic Ocean.

eXXpedition also opened my eyes to the important health disparities presented by plastics and plastic-related chemicals and emissions to women and girls. On board we discussed how womens’ endocrine (hormone) systems—which control reproduction, metabolism, and other important body functions—can be easily disrupted by plastic chemicals. And people who carry and bear children, a group that includes many women, are at a high risk of passing on pollution to their babies. Plastics have been recently found in human veins, bloodstreams, breastmilk and placentas, and plastic chemicals have been found in umbilical cord blood; these findings paint a worrying picture for people alive today and future generations.

Let’s Empower One Another

Our crew reaches Antigua!

Sadly, women and girls have long dealt with under-acknowledgement and lack of acknowledgement across the vast array of sciences and in adventurous pursuits such as sailing. Such discrimination in these—and so many other—fields has disproportionately harmed and silenced the voices and achievements of women of color and Indigenous women, as well as other historically underserved groups such as transgender, nonbinary, and queer peoples.

On eXXpedition’s Atlantic voyage, I learned so much about the incredible strength of women in science and sailing. We inspired and helped one another, holding impromptu on-deck yoga sessions and meditations when we felt stressed, and showed acts of kindness, care, and concern for one another throughout the trip. We had fun too, and shared lots of laughs as we sang, listened to podcasts, watched incredible wildlife and nature, and found joy in cooking and sharing at-sea treats like fresh bread, vegetable curries, and other culinary delights. We forged a real sisterhood; many of the women who sailed on this leg of the Round the World journey are still in touch with and visit one another today.

To me, this experience underscored that, together, we as women can support and empower each other, and also need to uplift the next generations of people, especially those who see themselves in underrepresented groups. Science is all about asking questions, and in attempting to answer these questions, we benefit most by listening to a wide range of voices. Diverse perspectives help us envision, achieve, and ultimately act on solutions to end plastic pollution, and create the healthy, just, equitable world we all need to not only survive—but thrive. 

Take Action

Together we can build a more just, equitable world free of plastic pollution! Learn more about the facts and solutions, and take action: sign petitions on important plastics issues, and pledge to cut your own plastic use.

You may have recently heard about microplastics and nanoplastics in the news, on social media, in your school or workplace, or in everyday conversation. “Microplastics” have even been deemed a “2023 Buzzword” by National Public Radio.

“Microplastics” and “nanoplastics” are words used to describe tiny plastic particles about the diameter of a standard pencil’s eraser and smaller. They exist all around us on Earth, and inside of our bodies, and shed off of things that are made from plastic.

Scientists have known for decades that plastic is a material that never breaks down or benignly biodegrades. But it’s only more recently that experts have been able to identify what happens instead: All plastic items break up into ever-smaller particles that remain plastic. Plastic particles travel through indoor and outdoor air; fresh waters, oceans, and other aquatic ecosystems; soils; plants; weather systems and atmosphere; and in the bodies of animals—including, as we now know, humans. 

Should we be concerned? In short, yes. A large and growing body of evidence shows us how microplastics and nanoplastics are hazardous to people and other living beings, and the Earth, too. In fact, the Earth is so saturated with plastic particles that some people have said we are living during a new geological era: The Plasticene

While we unfortunately cannot always avoid plastic particles, there’s much you can do to minimize your exposure. Read on to learn more about how you can take action today to protect your health from the dangers of microplastics and nanoplastics:

Microplastics and Nanoplastics are Harmful

Research showing the full extent of harm caused by microplastics and nanoplastics is now ramping up fast. While there’s a lot we do not yet know—such as the long-term effects of exposure to plastic particles on humans and the Earth—what we do know is concerning:

Plastic particles are in our bodies and environment

Microplastics and nanoplastics are small enough to enter the human body. They get into our bodies through our skin, when we eat and drink, and when we breathe. Plastic particles are widespread in modern human diets and our drinking water sources (tap and bottled); beverages (including soda and beer); fish, livestock, and game; produce and other edible plants; spices and salt; and processed and packaged foods.

Over the past several years, scientists have detected the presence of tiny plastic particles in people’s bloodstreams, veins, lungs, placentas, feces, and breast milk, with more worrying research now on the way. Human body cells exposed to microplastic particles in the laboratory experience cell damage and death. Observations of wild animals in nature show us that interactions with microplastics and nanoplastics can be deadly.

Plastic particles are known to both absorb toxic chemicals that pollute our planet and leach them into living organisms (including humans) and into Earth’s ecosystems. The smallest nanoplastic particles appear to have the ability to cross the blood–brain barrier in animals that ingest them, including fish. Plastic particles are easily colonized by bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microscopic organisms that can cause disease.

Plastic particles are hazardous to our health

Ninety-nine percent of all plastics are made from petrochemicals derived from fossil fuels—gas, oil, and coal. Plastic’s fossil fuel ingredients are mixed with any combination of more than 10,000 chemicals that give plastics certain useful characteristics, such as flexibility, water-resistance, and nonstick qualities. 

But this usefulness comes at a steep cost: More than 2,400 of these chemicals have been identified in the European Union as “toxic,” “persistent,” and/or “bioaccumulating” (dangerously building up in our bodies), with many more marked as likely hazardous. Many of the problematic chemicals in plastics are also made from fossil fuels.
Many plastic chemicals are known to cause and/or contribute to a wide range of health problems, including a person’s risk of hormone-related health issues, such as infertility and auto-immune diseases, cancers, and DNA damage. Microplastics and nanoplastics act as carriers for the chemicals that industries manufacture into plastics.

Take These Steps to Protect Your Health

Many experts now advise taking steps to avoid exposure to microplastics and nanoplastics, and plastics generally, to best protect our health. Children, as well as people who are trying to reproduce, appear particularly vulnerable to the hormone-disrupting and other toxic properties of plastics. People who work directly with plastics also appear more prone to the health threats of plastics and plastic particles.

Modern people may spend 90% (or more) of their time indoors—at home, school, in the workplace, and in public places. This is especially true as people continue to adapt to life amid a global pandemic. That’s a lot of time in environments that we can potentially control. Outdoors, we usually have less control over what pollutants we encounter. 

Follow these steps to eliminate plastics—and microplastic and nanoplastic particles—from your indoor environments:

1. Take stock of plastics in your kitchen

Research suggests that most processed and packaged foods and beverages contain microplastic particles—in surprising amounts. Researchers have estimated modern people could be ingesting up to a credit card’s weight in plastic every week

Eating unpackaged foods, such as loose fruits and vegetables, as well as foods packaged in untreated paper or reusable materials such as stainless steel, glass, and ceramic, can minimize your exposure to additional plastic particles in your diet. Don’t ever warm food in plastic containers in the microwave—use microwave-safe ceramic or glass instead. 

Avoid consuming beverages bottled in plastic, including bottled water, to reduce your exposure to microplastic particles. Research shows tap water usually has lower levels of microplastics. Use a filter capable of removing microplastics and other contaminants to ensure the water you drink is safe and clean.

Shop for food locally if you can, at farmers markets (find markets in the U.S. here) and grocery stores that offer reuse options where you bring your own containers to refill. You can also grow your own food in your garden, or in containers on your windowsill or rooftop; or in a community garden near you. Or purchase fresh, local food from a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation in your neighborhood (search for CSAs in the U.S. here). If you chew gum, find gum made from natural ingredients—not plastic! And when you shop, use reusable bags, ideally made from cotton or other natural, non-plastic materials like hemp or bamboo. You can make your own bags for free out of old t-shirts made from these same materials.

When eating out, choose eateries offering plastic-free and reusable packaging and dining options. We’ve partnered with Yelp! to create search attributes to help you decide. Prepare your foods from unprocessed ingredients, and store or carry meals and in reusable, non-plastic containers. Eat off of, and drink out of, reusable glass, metal, and ceramic plates, bowls, cups, mugs; use metal or wood flatware, and glass or metal straws. Avoid plastic baby bottles.

Remove plastics from your kitchen and instead try to find utensils, appliances, and other supplies that minimize or eliminate plastic contact with food. Ditch toxic plastic-coated teflon pots and pans and stock up on stainless steel, uncoated ceramic, and cast iron. Many plastic-free kitchen solutions are low-cost, if not free: for example, instead of purchasing glass containers to store your leftovers or to take to a reuse shop, save glass containers you purchase along with your peanut butter, pickles, and other jarred foods for this purpose. 

2. Beware of the plastics you might be wearing

Plastic fibers make up much modern clothing and apparel today. These manmade materials are major shedders of microplastic and nanoplastic “microfibers.” Avoid buying clothes made of plastic fibers like spandex, polyester, nylon, acrylic, and polyamide. Instead, opt for natural fibers such as 100% organic cotton, hemp, bamboo, wool, and other animal fibers. 

Be aware that cheaply made, mass-produced seasonal “fast-fashion” apparel, even if made from nonplastic fibers, often has outsized negative impacts on people and the environment. Do your homework on brands before you buy to understand how their employees are treated, and how they value (or not) people and the planet.

Overall we need to take better care of our clothing, buying less and taking care of it better. Wash your clothes only when they are truly dirty, use cold water, wash in full loads, and opt for shorter washing cycles to reduce wear and tear. Learning to sew, knit, and repair your clothes can extend their useful life and reduce the need to buy “new” clothes. Buying secondhand or exchanging clothing in swaps can extend the life of garments that otherwise may be destined for a landfill.

If you do have plastic fabrics in your home, consider installing a filter on your washing machine that’s designed to catch plastic fibers. In France, by 2025, these filters will be obligatory on all new washing machines. These filters are an imperfect solution, since microfibers still need to be removed periodically and sent somewhere for disposal—most often a landfill. However, washing machine filters can minimize your exposure and prevent microfibers from immediate discharge into your wastewater system.

3. Choose plastic-free furnishings

Homes, offices, schools, and other buildings we occupy are often built with plastic materials and filled with plastic furnishings. When possible, avoid plastic materials and furniture for use in your home. Carpeting, manmade flooring, ceiling tiles, paints and finishes, couches, upholstered chairs, and other common household items contribute to indoor plastic pollution.

Besides circulating in the air, plastic particles often settle in the dust in indoor environments. Children and pets, being low to the ground where particles gather, are especially vulnerable to microplastics and nanoplastic exposure indoors. 

Children and pets alike should not be given plastic toys with which to play. For human babies and kids, unpainted, untreated wooden toys are one of many safe options. Learn more about keeping your child safe from plastics with our Healthy Baby Guide. For keeping pets content, opt for natural ropes, homemade biscuits, raw fruits and vegetables, and real animal bones or horns (appropriately sized to your pet, of course), and organic catnip. Learn more about keeping your nonhuman friends safe in our upcoming webinar, “Plastic-Free Pet Care.” 

Your lifestyle choices also impact plastic exposure in your indoor environments. Frequent vacuuming can reduce microplastics and nanoplastics. Be sure to open your windows while vacuuming to minimize your exposure to plastic particles kicked up during the process. Indoor HEPA filters can remove plastic particles from the air to minimize your risk of breathing them in.

Take Action to End Plastic Pollution

While you take steps to minimize your exposure to plastics in your everyday life, you can make an even bigger impact by supporting systemic solutions to plastic pollution. Remember, we need to turn off the tap on global plastics production in order to stop this urgent crisis. Plastic particles are only one of many sources of serious pollution caused by plastics. And the growing threat of microplastics and nanoplastics will only multiply unless plastic production is stopped.

Together we can build a more just, equitable world free of plastic pollution! Learn more about the facts and solutions, and take action: sign petitions on important plastics issues, and pledge to cut your own plastic use.


Judith Enck, President of Beyond Plastics and former EPA Regional Administrator; and Dr. Pete Myers, Founder, CEO, and Chief Scientist of Environmental Health Sciences, testified in December 2022 before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works’ Subcommittee on Chemical Safety, Waste Management, Environmental Justice, and Regulatory Oversight. Both are scientific experts on plastic and Plastic Pollution Coalition Advisors. This is the first time such a hearing has been convened to discuss the plastic pollution crisis.


Shifting the Narrative

Historically, the plastics and fossil fuel industries, government interests, and those who benefit economically and politically from plastics have maintained control of the narrative around plastics as the material continues to harm the entire human population and degrade the Earth. That’s why plastic pollution continues growing worse, not better, despite the “solutions” that industries, governments, and corporations promise. 

Opening the hearing, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), the Chairman of the Subcommittee, laid out key facts about the plastic pollution crisis and its wide range of harmful consequences for people and the planet. Merkley stated that the ways we have previously attempted to solve plastic pollution have fallen far short in addressing the core cause of the problem: continued plastic production.

“Now most of us have heard of the three Rs, reduce, reuse, recycle. That sounds like a magical way to address this challenge. But here’s the story with plastics: it’s not three Rs, it’s three Bs: They’re buried, they’re burned, or they’re borne out to sea.”

— Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR)

The problem with plastic is that it was not designed to be recycled, and despite the plastic industry’s claims that plastic is being recycled, very little of it is actually getting another life. And even in the rare cases when plastics are recycled, an even greater challenge with this material exists: plastics are toxic.

Dr. Pete Myers was the first expert to testify, focusing on the toxicity of plastics and the numerous ways it harms human health, primarily by disrupting how hormones work in the human body. According to Dr. Myers, what’s at stake is no less than human survival.

“Over the last five decades there has been a 50% decline in sperm count in adult men. Just this past month a study came out to see that the rate of decline is speeding up, it’s not slowing down, and it’s global. Not just sperm count but other features of male and female infertility are worsening also. If the current rate of sperm count declines, it will decline asymptotically to zero by the 2040s.”

— Dr. Pete Myers, Founder, CEO, and Chief Scientist of Environmental Health Sciences

Similarly, Judith Enck in her testimony presented serious facts about how plastics—especially single-use plastics—cause widespread harm and environmental injustice, and highlighted the real solutions which will significantly and meaningfully reduce plastic pollution and injustice.

“We need major new federal legislation to significantly reduce the production, use, and disposal of plastics, and we need it now….my primary recommendation is for Congress to adopt a law establishing the goal of reducing the production of plastic by 50% over the next 10 years and providing enforcement mechanisms and federal funding to achieve this goal.”

— Judith Enck, President of Beyond Plastics and former EPA Regional Administrator

 End Industry Interference

Despite the alarming facts about plastic now more clear than ever, and with a wave of awareness of the crisis growing, industries and some members of government appear to be prioritizing profits over people. As is unfortunately common practice, at this hearing like at others, members of government appear to be “inviting the fox into the henhouse” when allowing industries to comment on how their businesses should be regulated.

In addition to Myers and Enck, the other two speakers invited to testify at the hearing included plastic industry representatives Matt Seaholm, president and CEO of the Plastics Industry Association, which is historically the plastic industry’s most vocal and impactful trade group, and Eric Hartz, co-founder and president of “advanced recycling” corporation Nexus Circular. 

The industry representatives in their testimony chose to not discuss facts or the dire health and social issues plastic causes. Instead, they presented false “solutions,” specifically various forms of plastic “recycling,” which delay real action and enable corporations to produce ever-increasing amounts of plastics for ever-increasing profits. The industry reps also discussed at length the economic implications of making plastics—something that matters to multi-billion dollar fossil fuel and plastics corporations—not everyday people who are worst harmed.

Support Real Solutions

Photo by Preston Keres/USDA

While the industry testimony contrasted sharply with the testimony of Enck and Myers, during the questioning round the scientific experts were quick to set the record straight on the industry’s false information. Enck and Myers also submitted invaluable written testimony laying out the truths about “advanced recycling” and other dangerous industry-drive false solutions—and explaining why these harmful technologies must be avoided.What’s more, they focused on real, systemic solutions that will solve the problem—if we support them and can allow plastic facts to override plastic industry fiction.

Senator Merkley is sponsor of the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, which is focused on: 

  • Addressing environmental injustices
  • Improving recycling to the degree that can make a difference
  • Eliminating unnecessary single-use plastics by supporting systems of reduction, refill, and reuse
  • Increasing industry and corporate responsibility for plastics
  • Introducing a strong national bottle bill to ensure plastics are collected
  • Other measures to reduce the harms of plastics while reinforcing useful systems and values that protect and support people and the planet

“Pass the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, pass the National Bottle Bill, pass a sensible law called the Plastic Reduction and Recycling Research Act, also known as EPR, which has been introduced in state legislatures around the country. We don’t need a magical breakthrough, we need reduction, refill, and reuse, and if you absolutely cannot reduce or refill and reuse, then rely on paper, metal, glass. Get the toxics out, particularly out of the paper, and make sure that that material is made from recycled content and are easily recyclable.”

— Judith Enck

Together we can build a more just, equitable world free of plastic pollution! Learn more about the facts and solutions, and take action: sign petitions on important plastics issues, and pledge to cut your own plastic use.


The EPA’s new designation of PFOS and PFOA as “hazardous substances” under the “Superfund” act is a positive—but far from final—step toward adequately regulating manmade, toxic perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) “forever chemicals.”

 PFOS and PFOA have been largely phased out of new production in the U.S. by industries due to many years of mounting evidence on PFAS toxicity and persistence, but these chemicals have been manufactured into plastics and other products for decades and are still widely found in existing consumer goods such as nonstick cookware and rainproof clothing as well as in landfills and the environment. More than 3,000 poly- and PFAS forever chemicals are in existence today, and many other varieties of PFAS are just as toxic as PFOS and PFOA. While the EPA’s new designation of PFOS and PFOA as “hazardous”  further magnifies the need to protect human and environmental health from toxic PFAS, it would rely on unreliable information provided by PFAS polluters, and while the move could compel cleanups of PFAS-contaminated sites, the EPA fails to enact enforceable regulation around PFAS’ manufacture and use. The public deserves real transparency around production and releases of toxic PFAS, as well as assurance that polluters will be held accountable for cleaning up their mess. A designation of hazardous is not a strict enough regulation of a hazardous substance. More must be done to address the widespread pollution of PFOS, PFOA, and other PFAS across the planet and in our bodies.


Current law allows plastic producers and shippers to discharge trillions of small plastic pellets – “nurdles” – directly into waters without any consequences, with toxic impacts on public health and wildlife 

WASHINGTON – Today, Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) introduced the Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act to prohibit the discharge and pollution of pre-production plastic pellets. Pre-production plastic pellets, tiny granules of plastic less than 5 millimeters in size, are the building blocks of virtually all plastic products. Sometimes called “nurdles,” they are produced by major petrochemical companies from fossil fuels and then shipped to thousands of plastic processing plants that melt, mold and turn them into plastic products, such as plastic bags, bottles, utensils, and more.

Udall and U.S. Representative Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) are the authors of the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, comprehensive legislation to require big corporations to take responsibility for the plastic waste they produce. 

A 2016 report by Eunomia, a global consulting firm based in England, estimated that 230,000 tons of pellets pollute the marine environment each year. About 22,000 pellets are found in a single pound, meaning trillions of pellets are scattered into the environment every year. Like other plastic products, pellets take decades to break down and are often mistaken for fish eggs or other food by sea life and birds and can lead to malnourishment and death.

“The plastic pollution crisis rears its ugly head at every step of the plastic supply chain, starting with small plastic manufacturing pellets infiltrating our waterways, parks and oceans,” said Udall, author of the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act. “Trillions of plastic pellets leak into our environment from lax plastic producers and shippers, and the problem is only getting worse as big oil corporations ramp up their investment in plastic as their path to future profit. It’s time to end the avalanche of plastic pellets damaging wildlife and the livelihoods of entire American communities that depend on healthy rivers, streams and beaches. We can put simple solutions into action today to prevent plastic pellets from continuing to pollute and damage our health—we have no more time to waste.” 

The risks of discharging these plastic pellets are enormous and pollution attributed to them has been documented for several decades with little to no enforcement against these spills. In 2019, Formosa Plastic agreed to spend $50 million on local environmental clean-up projects in Texas to address decades of spills – the largest settlement ever in a citizen clean-water-suit. Formosa also agreed to be held to a zero-discharge standard for plastic pellets. 

In South Carolina, two citizens groups filed a pellet case in March against Frontier Logistics, a major shipper of resin pellets, for a major spill in Charleston Harbor in 2019 along with smaller spills. Just last month, a cargo ship on the Mississippi River in New Orleans was involved in a major pellet spill, further complicated by confusion over which federal or state agency is responsible for responding. Far more often, however pellets leak from negligent or lax control at industrial and transportation sites due to a failure of federal or state oversight officials to enforce pellet practices and loose industry self-policing. Citizen lawsuits have been necessary because federal and state authorities have failed to act.

A coalition of 280 environmental, public health and community groups has petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to monitor and prevent pellet pollution, including implementing a zero-discharge standard for pellets.

The Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act requires the EPA to finalize a rule within 60 days to:

–        Prohibit the discharge of plastic pellets or other pre-production plastic materials from facilities and sources that make, use, package, or transport those materials; and;

–        Update all existing permits and standards of performance to reflect those prohibitions.

“We keep seeing more and more evidence of plastic particles finding their way into our rivers, lakes and oceans, posing risks to sea life and, potentially, to our health,” said Jon Devine, director of federal water policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “This measure would be a meaningful step forward to reduce that harmful pollution. It’s long overdue and if the industry wants to be a constructive partner it should join with us in supporting it.”

“Plastic pellets are an uncontrolled scourge that fouls waterways and harms wildlife. This important legislation holds EPA to account to stem the tide of this pervasive and preventable pollutant,” said Julie Teel Simmonds, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Trillions of plastic pellets are released into our oceans every year and plastic is expected to outweigh all the fish in the sea by 2050. We need to hold polluters accountable for the irreparable damage they’re doing to our oceans.”

“Right now, the only thing stopping plastics manufacturers from discharging hundreds of thousands of metric tons of plastic pellets into our waterways are their voluntary commitments, and that just isn’t good enough,” said Doug Cress, vice president for conservation at Ocean Conservancy. “Recently published research confirms that voluntary commitments have fallen far short of what we need to do to tackle the ocean plastics crisis. Regulating plastic pellet discharge – just as we regulate dumping of other pollutants – should not be up for debate, especially when the ocean plastics crisis is so dire.” 

“We applaud Senator Udall for introducing the Plastic Pellet Free Wat
ers Act, which would support critically important efforts to prevent plastic pollution from harming people and the environment,” said Roberta Elias, Director of Policy and Government Affairs at World Wildlife Fund US. “Scientists are increasingly concerned about the ongoing discharge of plastic into nature and its impacts on ecosystems and communities. The provisions in this legislation are needed to better protect public health and to shift incentives and funding schemes away from those that favor virgin plastic production and use toward those that minimize waste and encourage reliance on recycled content.”

Join our global Coalition.

Photo: A landfill in Delhi, India. Photo by Marcus Eriksen.

New science featuring Plastic Pollution Coalition member organization 5 Gyres was published today in Science magazine. Director of Science and Innovation for 5 Gyres, Dr. Marcus Eriksen, authored the article with scientists Chelsea Rochman, Dr. Stephanie Borrelle, Jenna Jambeck, and others:  Predicted growth in plastic waste exceeds efforts to mitigate plastic pollution

The key finding: plastic waste production is outpacing our ability to manage it. 

Even with ambitious globally coordinated plastic reduction efforts, plastic emissions to rivers, lakes, and oceans could be as high as 53 Million tonnes in 2030.

“Considering the ambitious commitments currently set by governments, annual emissions may reach up to 53 million metric tons per year by 2030,” reads the abstract. “To reduce emissions to a level well below this prediction, extraordinary efforts to transform the global plastics economy are needed.”

Take action to stop plastic pollution.

Join our global Coalition.