Thank you to NCSE and to Michelle Wyman for inviting me here today. I appreciate being with this audience for the 30th Anniversary of NCSE because of who you all are and how important what you do is to the work we all do. It is great to be here today. So why am I so grateful? I have the privilege of supervising a Bureau of negotiators. When we walk into a room wielding our science—your science—things happen.
The United States has long relied on science to inspire and inform stronger environmental policy. We were among the first in the world to recognize the value of a clean environment and to take federal action to protect it. The Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were established in 1970. Legislation to protect our air and water and marine mammals soon followed. In 1973, Congress established my bureau—the Bureau of Oceans, and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES) at the U.S. Department of State—with the charge of having wide-ranging global responsibilities to promote and advance U.S. interests, including science, pollution, conservation, health, and space to name a few.
Since 1973, OES has been the face of American leadership in the international environmental policy arena. OES issues are front and center on the international agenda and are recognized worldwide as critical foreign policy and security issues. Science remains incredibly important to our foreign policy. Our science is a powerbroker; it will break a policy logjam, or catalyze a policy decision, precisely because it is trusted, and we continue to rely on it constantly.
Let me give you one example of how we have used scientific information to help advance stronger environmental policies overseas:
In 2008, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing installed an air quality monitor—and began to publish the monitor’s data online in real time via Twitter, an effort started because we were worried about the health of Americans overseas. This was the first time Chinese citizens had access to live, accurate air quality data. The tweets became a social media phenomenon in China in 2010-11 and were soon accompanied by calls for the Chinese government to tackle air pollution. This grassroots campaign, coupled with sound science, combined with bilateral engagement with Chinese authorities, led to major changes in China’s approach to air monitoring in 2012 and management of air pollution. Beijing’s air quality has improved significantly since 2008—our monitor measured a 40% decrease in PM2.5 levels between 2012 and 2018 alone. And subsequently, over 60 U.S. Embassies and Consulates around the world have installed air monitors—including Bangladesh, where I served as ambassador—with live data published on EPA’s Air Now platform. Now, that data is fueling policy discussions, domestic policy changes, and fueling the sale of U.S. equipment overseas, including to China.
Now, I turn to an emerging challenge that will require even more collaboration between the U.S. government and scientists and researchers around the world: that is the issue of plastic waste, or marine debris.
You have heard the statistics, seen the pictures, and some of you have even had a hand in conducting and publishing the initial research that put this issue on the map.
The statistics are startling:
- Plastics production is slated to triple in the next decade.
- 70% of municipalities in developing countries do not have access to waste management.
- If we don’t act, there may be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050
In fact, the World Bank estimates that in low-income countries, more than 90% of the population lacks access to appropriate waste management.
And, according to the United Nations Environmental Program, the world produces around 300 million tons of plastic each year. Around eight million tons of plastic ends up in oceans annually.
For a long time, we have viewed waste management, or mismanagement, as a local problem, and one that could only be addressed within national and municipal borders, if at all. But it is expensive to do it right. In developing countries, it can cost 20-50% of a municipal budget to manage waste properly. Clearly, many communities do not have the capacity or resources to tackle this problem. Further, waste issues and solutions are often unique to their localities. Local waste solutions in the United States are often not transferrable to the circumstances faced by a less-developed country. This highlights the need for localized innovation, and for further research into what responses work, and when and how they might be transferrable.
I believe that the U.S. scientific community is poised to help. You are critical in supporting everything from citizen science, improved public policy, to more viable economic models for recycling, and materials engineering. The State Department is here with an open door to help you deliver these solutions to the world when you’re ready.
In the meantime, the U.S. government is acting on what we already know.
First, the White House has taken a keen interest in the issue. Over the past six months it has convened senior interagency leadership to develop a plan of action to address the issue, and it is even more urgent because plastic is one of the fastest growing manufacturing industries in America, growing by 6.9% between 2017 and 2018. and when you take into account its supply chain, it represents 1.81 million jobs and $590.6 billion in production. Solving this problem is of critical interest to the U.S. economy as well as to the environment.
This year, as part of our initial efforts, the United States Government will release a framework for addressing ocean plastic pollution and other marine litter, because not all of it is plastic. Drawing from successful experiences and lessons in the United States, we will address this challenge internationally through a combination of capacity building, market-based approaches, and support for innovation.
In 2019, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) launched the Clean Cities, Blue Ocean initiative, its $48 million global flagship program to build capacity and commitment for the 3Rs – reduce, reuse, and recycle – and improved solid waste management in countries that are major contributors to ocean plastic pollution. This assistance complements USAID’s partnerships with the private sector to address the problem, such as with Circulate Capital’s $100 million fund that will catalyze investment in the recycling value chain in Asia.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has several programs to address plastic waste. The EPA’s WasteWise program encourages local governments, nonprofit organizations, businesses, and multinational corporations to achieve sustainability in their waste practices and reduce waste. And, EPA’s Trash-Free Waters program catalyzes action by bringing together stakeholders to identify and prioritize innovative low-cost, low-tech projects that can have a large impact on land-based sources of mismanaged waste.
The State Department contributed $800k to APEC to fund efforts to combat marine debris in APEC regions, and provided support to develop a Roadmap on Marine Debris and an APEC economic costs study on marine debris. In addition, the Department provided a $1 million grant to the Ocean Conservancy for a project in Vietnam to combat the problem.
We are also partnering with Taiwan to showcase their waste management successes as a potential model for the region. Twenty-five years ago, Taiwan was nicknamed “garbage island.” Through extensive solid waste management policy and public awareness efforts, Taiwan now has recycling rates over 50% by some estimates, and incinerators running below capacity. We want to replicate this success with others in the region.
We are also engaged on the UNEP Ad Hoc Open-Ended Expert Group on Marine Litter and Microplastics to work with other countries to take stock of existing activities to combat marine litter and to evaluate the effectiveness of these measures, in order to provide potential options to member states at the Fifth UN Environment Assembly in February 2021.
Further, we are following through on the need for local solutions through small-scale and community-based projects in Colombia, Central America, and the Dominican Republic to increase the capacity for solid waste management, with a focus on sanitary landfills
Starting this month, my bureau at the Department of State is launching an awareness campaign and challenge called ‘Face the Waste’. My team will work with officers at U.S. embassies overseas to raise awareness and promote action with our counterparts to urgently and effectively address plastic pollution.
We will launch a challenge to embassies to monitor their waste management using EPA’s WasteWise platform, and to engage in a competition with sister embassies to improve waste management and recycling practices. As part of this campaign, those embassies will be encouraged to engage with their communities overseas to generate grassroots solutions and innovative responses.
Just like public sentiment has previously motivated monumental international policy action on air quality—we are at the crest of a wave of action to reduce, reuse, and recycle plastics. We have a key opportunity here to seize on that momentum, match it with science- and evidence-based policy, and create effective and lasting policy solutions.
So please, join me as we #FacetheWaste together.