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Report says fixing plastics' pollution in the oceans requires a new approach

NOEL KING, HOST:

The U.S. produces more plastic waste than any country in the world, and a new report from Congress says we have to rethink how we use plastic. Here's NPR's Lauren Sommer.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Every year, almost 10 million tons of plastic goes into the ocean. That's like having a full garbage truck unloading its waste into the water every minute for an entire year.

KARA LAVENDER LAW: We're really good at buying things and using them and making trash.

SOMMER: Kara Lavender Law is an oceanographer at the Sea Education Association and is an author of a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine about plastics in the ocean. She says plastic takes a huge toll on marine life, both because animals get trapped in it and because they eat it. Birds on Pacific Islands have been found with stomachs full of plastic bits.

LAW: We create these materials, and we need to be responsible for them through their end of life.

SOMMER: Law says their report calls on the U.S. to create a national plastic strategy by the end of next year. One part of the puzzle - recycling because most of us are doing aspirational recycling.

LAW: You know, you put something in the blue bin and you assume that it just magically turns into the next thing.

SOMMER: But in the U.S., only about 9% of plastic waste is recycled. The problem is that many items have several kinds of plastic in them, so they can't be recycled or take a lot of work to separate, which makes it expensive. Winnie Lau, who works on plastics policy at the Pew Charitable Trusts, says there needs to be a bigger market for recycled plastic.

WINNIE LAU: Having governments and companies commit to using the recycled plastic will really go a long way.

SOMMER: Another key strategy - stop using plastic in the first place by switching to biodegradable materials. The American Chemistry Council, which represents plastics manufacturers, says that would lead to increased costs for consumers. Lau says recycling alone won't solve the problem, and it's getting more urgent.

LAU: Even a five-year delay would add about 100 million metric tons of plastic into the ocean over that five years.

SOMMER: But it's not hopeless, she says. It will just take a national strategy where one has been lacking.

Lauren Sommer, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF IL:LO'S "A.ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.