Former NOAA Deputy Under Secretary Kennedy: “Prevention is the real answer”

Washington DC, 3 October 2017 – The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is the only U.S. federal organisation that has a formal marine debris program dealing with plastic pollution in the oceans. Former Deputy Under Secretary David M. Kennedy was NOAA’s chief operating officer. Responsible for the day-to-day management of NOAA’s national and international operations, he was among the first to realise the devastating impact of plastic marine debris.

Since when has the NOAA been involved in marine plastic debris?

“NOAA is involved in removal missions of the beaches of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. We have visited these pristine islands since 1996 to remove plastic from the shores. More than twenty years ago, we realised how much plastic the gyres are bringing ashore, and that much of it comes from the fishing industry. We subsequently started our Marine Debris Project. The 2011 tsunami in particular taught us how far plastic items can travel. Funds to clean up the beaches are limited, but we need to come back every year to catch up with the accumulation. We also dive to collect derelict fishing gear. The collected debris is taken to Hawaii, burned and used for electricity generation.”

The islands are part of one of the world’s largest marine conservation areas. Clean-ups are necessary but are not the final answer. What should be done?

“Prevention is the real answer, otherwise we will keep cleaning up forever. We need to raise more awareness among the people and within the government. In the end, we need new regulations to prevent further pollution and major technological investments to change the current way that plastic is produced.”

Could you give an example?

“We must bring the best brains together and fund major research for development programmes to develop alternative materials that are not harmful to the environment and for human health. There is no market for plastic pollution. Therefore, the government has an important role to play.”

What are the chances of this scenario coming about given the fact that the environment is not a priority under the Trump administration and that the availability of cheap shale gas is leading to a new boom in plastic production?

“To achieve changes in the United States, both at government and industry level, is indeed a major challenge. We also need to recognise that plastic pollution is an international problem that needs to be solved internationally. What we really need is a new dedicated international treaty within the framework of the United Nations. This must be a treaty with aims, obligations and teeth. No plastic producer will change as long as its international competitors are allowed to continue business as usual.”

Photo. NOAA, Plastic debris in Hawaï.