New Bill in U.S. Creates Prize for Save Our Seas Innovations

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Congress passed a bill designed to clean oceans of plastic pollution. President Donald Trump signed it. You’d think environmentalists would be happy and Republicans would have wanted to “water” it down. But almost the opposite occurred.

Congress in early December approved the Save Our Seas (SOS) Act 2 (S. 1982). The bill expands on the first SOS, which Trump signed into law in 2018, reauthorizing the Marine Debris Act of 2006 through 2022.

The new bill would create a Genius Prize for SOS Innovations “to encourage technological innovation with the potential to reduce plastic waste.” A new Marine Debris Foundation would get $1 million in federal money and could raise outside funds to give one or more awards biennially for creative ways to make degradable, reusable or recycled packaging, and to invent degradable fishing gear. Awardees could create new packaging materials that would degrade without harming the environment, wildlife or human health; create technologies to improve marine debris detection and cleanup; reduce use of raw materials in package design; improve ways to increase waste collection, recycling and reuse; and reduce packaging needs.

The bill would also require federal studies to “innovate uses for plastic waste in consumer products,” microfiber pollution, and abandoned fishing gear. Studies would also be conducted on a strategy to reduce plastic waste, possible international agreements or forums on preventing marine debris and more.

The bill would also call for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (UISAID) to work with foreign governments and private entities on plans to improve reuse/recycling and public awareness campaigns about proper disposal. 

State, USAID and several other federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration already work with other countries on these matters, mainly in Asia, spending about $10 million a year. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that expanding the efforts to Africa and South America would cost about $20 million annually.

The bill passed both Houses without any objections. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) who represents a state about as far from the ocean as possible and isn’t known as an environmentalist, called SOS an “important piece of legislation that will help us deal with ocean debris in a hopefully very successful way.”

So what’s not to love about it?

Though he ultimately voted for the bill, Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) worried that the Genius Prize could go in the wrong direction. He tried to amend the bill to prohibit the prize from supporting “technologies that convert plastic wasted (sic) into products such as chemicals, feedstocks, fuels and energy.”

“The categories of projects that are eligible for the Genius Prize are deliberately limited, in order to focus on innovation that reduces plastic waste (by reducing the use of raw materials, increasing recyclable content, etc.) and on innovation that detects and cleans up marine debris. It does not support projects that turn plastic into energy,” says Amanda Coyne, spokesperson for Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK), who introduced the bill. 

Udall Communications Director Ned Adriance did not respond to inquiries.

And a group of 38 environmental organizations asked Congress not to pass the bill. Beyond Plastics, a project formed in 2019 at Bennington College in Vermont dedicated to fighting plastic pollution, spearheaded the effort. The groups signed a letter that read “this legislation does not provide a comprehensive approach to solving the growing problem of plastic pollution and certain provisions of the bill will make the problem worse.” 

“The bill does virtually nothing to solve the problem of ocean plastic pollution,” said Beyond Plastics President Judith Enck in an interview. “It is not even half a loaf… It provides the public with the false impression that Congress is actually doing something to address the problem.”

Enck fears that the foundation, which would administer the Genius Prize, could also raise unlimited private cash “so we may see some greenwashing going on.” The prize “seems more like window dressing than actual research and development,” she charges. “When the government doesn’t know what to do, it sets up a competition.” The bill fails to address the “gargantuan problem of too much plastic production and too much plastic pollution.”

But the view isn’t shared by all environmentalists. The World Wildlife Fund endorsed the bill, issuing a statement saying the “legislation is a step in the right direction and will help us better understand the barriers to recycling and identify interventions to reduce marine debris.” The Consortium for Ocean Leadership approves of it, praising “the bill’s commitment to finding scientific solutions to the issue of marine debris while also recognizing that the scale of the problem will require building strong partnerships across many sectors.” 

The plastics and recycling industries are supporting the bill. “America’s plastic makers strongly support the bill’s focus on developing ways to repurpose our plastic resources. And we welcome new opportunities to work with other governments to increase knowledge sharing and improve plastic waste management and recycling infrastructure,” Steve Russell, vice president of the American Chemistry Council (ACA), said in an prepared statement. The council represents plastic manufacturers.

The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), which represents solid waste management professionals, also expressed delight at the bill’s passage. “SWANA strongly supported the SOS, which improves the domestic response to marine debris, incentivizes international engagement to address marine debris, and helps strengthen infrastructure to prevent the creation of new marine debris,” SWANA said in a prepared statement.

What might work better? Enck suggests the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (S. 3263 and S. 3944, H.R. 5845), which would set requirements for use of recycled material in beverage containers, phase out use of plastic utensils, limit export of plastic waste, tax carry-out bags, start programs to return to the age of returnable containers and more. Introduced in February before the Senate committees on Finance and Environment & Public Works and House committees on Energy & Commerce; Ways & Means; Transportation & Infrastructure; and Foreign Affairs; none of the committees acted on it. Ninety-two representatives and 11 senators sponsored it, though.

“It didn’t move because of strong opposition from special interests,” including ACA, Enck charges. 

“Plastics manufacturing is beyond the scope of, although SOS 2.0 would certainly work well with any future legislative efforts in this area,” Coyne wrote in an email.

Note: Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), vice president elect, cosponsored S. 3263. She did not cosponsor SOS though but didn’t object to it. 

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