Remarks at the Georgetown Sustainable Oceans Summit

Catherine A. Novelli
Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment 
Washington, DC
April 25, 2015

Good afternoon, everyone. Let me begin by thanking Daniela and the Georgetown Sustainable Oceans Alliance for hosting this terrific summit and inviting me to join you.

Having worked on Secretary Kerry’s ocean conference last June, I know what a tremendous amount of work it is to plan and host such an event. I also know what a tremendous impact an event like this can have – in getting the word out, bringing people together with a common purpose, and inspiring action. So I am thrilled to be here.

Today you’ve heard from ocean experts across so many fields, people who are making a difference – whether by performing cutting-edge marine research, exploring the depths of the ocean, making the unknown accessible through film and art, developing innovative policies and public-private partnerships, bringing environmental criminals to justice, or developing new technologies to gather real time environmental and fisheries data. It’s going to take all of these skills to make a difference.

Like Secretary Kerry and all of you, I am a passionate advocate for the ocean. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we depend upon the ocean for our very existence.

• It regulates our climate and our weather.

• It generates half of the oxygen we breathe and absorbs a lot of the excess carbon we produce.

• It provides food and income for billions of people.

• And it’s a source of inspiration, beauty, wonder, and fun.

Humanity is connected to the ocean. The human body itself is well over half water. And our fate is inextricably tied to the ocean’s fate.

Why is this important? The ocean is in trouble.

You’ve heard about some of these problems today.

• Many of the world’s fish stocks are depleted and continue to be overfished.

• Runoff and debris are choking our waters.

• The very chemistry of the ocean is changing, becoming more acidic because of the carbon we are pumping into the air.

But here’s the main thing I want you to remember. These problems can be solved. Fixing them, however, will require significant and sustained action by all of us – individually and together.

That’s the second reason I’m so happy to be here today. We need – the ocean needs – you, the millennials, with all of your passion and energy, to help fix these problems. And that means action. Yes, we have to study these problems. Yes, we have to get the word out so everyone understands their magnitude and urgency. But we also have to act.

I started my remarks with Secretary Kerry’s Call to Action to make this very point. As the Secretary said, no matter where you live, you can help in some way.

How? What can you do? Let’s take the problem of plastic waste in the ocean as an example.

We all know how important and useful plastic has become in our daily lives. It makes health care and food preservation simpler and safer. It can even reduce energy use as light weight packaging.

But plastic products are the ultimate irony. Many are created for a single, short-term use, and then they live on for centuries as trash. So a person might properly discard a water bottle, a bag from the grocery store, or some packaging that came with a new cell phone. But that plastic waste may stay with us for a long, long time.

And when not managed properly, plastic waste inevitably finds its way into our waterways, and ultimately the ocean. Some estimates indicate that up to 80% of marine debris originates on land, and much of it is plastic.

A study published recently in Science magazine lays out the magnitude of the problem. The authors estimated that about 8 million metric tons of plastic waste ended up in the ocean in 2010 – enough to line up five grocery bags of trash on every foot of coastline in the world.

The greatest challenge is that the peak of plastic consumption is still a long way off. The experts tell us that by 2025, plastic production will double – to 400 million tons each year, and that there will be one ton of plastic in the ocean for every three tons of fish.

What happens to this plastic when it gets to the ocean? It entangles sea creatures and damages important habitats such as coral reefs. It generally doesn’t biodegrade, and breaks down into small pieces – called microplastics – which keep building up in the environment. Microplastics are eaten by marine animals and the fish we consume, creating a human health issue, too.

Plastics have been found to impact over 650 marine species – including turtles, seals, whales, dolphins, seabirds, and fish. This is not a problem that’s limited to the huge garbage patches you may have heard about. Ocean plastics are everywhere.

So how do we stop this insidious problem? How do we keep plastics out of the ocean?

We – and by that I mean all of us – governments, businesses, scientists, engineers, funders, advocates, and each one of us – we need to focus our actions in a few key areas, with an emphasis on the 4 Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse, and recycle.

First, we need to reduce the amount of plastic waste we produce. That includes everything from refusing single-use plastics to redesigning our products and packaging to use less plastic and more plastic alternatives. For example, a company called NewGen Surgical is making single-use medical devices and surgical products using non-plastic materials that feel like plastic. And Mango Materials, a firm in the San Francisco Bay area, holds a patent to produce a kind of “bioplastic” that is biodegradable.

As individuals, we can also reduce the amount of plastic we use, and thus the plastic waste we generate. I’ve seen estimates that in the United States alone, we use about 50 billion plastic water bottles a year – that’s over fifteen hundred bottles a second. I’m so pleased that we’ve been asked to bring our own reusable water bottles today. How many of you brought reusable bottles?

Second, we need to improve national systems for waste management so that we can better reuse and recycle plastics.

The Science article I mentioned earlier estimated that over half of the plastic in the ocean can be attributed to poor waste management in just five countries across Asia. As their economies improve, their plastic consumption is outstripping their ability to collect and manage this waste. We’re working hard through diplomacy and partnerships to improve and expand the waste collection infrastructure.

The good news is that plastic debris has value – with the right incentives and infrastructure, it can be recaptured, reused, and transformed into new materials or energy.

Which brings us to the third area of focus. We need to reuse and recycle plastics whenever possible. This is something we can all do. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans recycled less than 35% of the trash we generated in 2012, and we recycled only 9 percent of our plastics. Those rates need to be higher.

And we can demand innovations through the power of the market place. Waste-to-energy projects and recycling innovations hold great promise. Here are just a few examples.

• We are working with a company in the Philippines that is collecting local trash and turning it into diesel to fuel their local fishing fleet.

• A group of young entrepreneurs from the United States has started a company in Chile called Bureo to take discarded fishing nets and recycle them into skateboards, which are sold through Patagonia and at surf shops.

• And a company called Bionic Yarn is taking ocean plastic and turning it into thread for things like designer jeans by Pharrell Williams and products by H & M and Adidas.

I used this problem of marine debris to show you how we can all take action and we can all make a difference. But we could have done the same exercise using any number of other problems facing the ocean.

For example, the United States is a world leader in sustainable fisheries management. We are also one of the largest seafood-consuming countries in the world, and a significant majority of that seafood is imported. Under the Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud task force established last year by President Obama, the United States will set up a new “traceability” program to track seafood from where it was harvested or farmed to its entry into U.S. commercial markets. That will give us as consumers the information and the power we need to ensure that the seafood we buy was caught in a sustainable manner.

This IUU task force is just one example of how the State Department has made ocean conservation a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy under the leadership of Secretary Kerry. In the year since the Secretary hosted his tremendously successful Our Ocean conference, we and other U.S. agencies have been working hard to continue the momentum on the numerous initiatives announced there. This includes the United States creating the largest marine protected area in the world by expanding our Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument to protect some of the most pristine, diverse, and vulnerable ocean areas on the planet. We look forward to the Our Ocean conference that Chile will host in October as an opportunity for us all to measure our progress and announce new initiatives.

We are also moving forward on other fronts.

• We strongly support a dedicated goal on healthy oceans, seas, and marine resources in the Post-2015 Development Agenda – often referred to as Sustainable Development Goals – and are happy to see your petition requesting the United Nations to adopt an ocean SDG.

• We are engaged globally to push for the entry into force of the Port State Measures Agreement to help combat IUU fishing.

• We are working with New Zealand and other governments and stakeholders to establish the largest marine protected area on the planet in the Ross Sea off Antarctica.

• And we are making ocean issues a centerpiece of our Arctic policy as the United States assumes the chairmanship of the Arctic Council.

In closing, let me say I know the problems facing our ocean are daunting. I know the solutions are difficult. Let me assure you that we will not give up, and we will not let up. And I urge you to do the same.

The ocean is made up of billions and billions of individual drops of water. Each drop by itself may be small and insubstantial, but together these drops cover almost three quarters of the surface of the earth. So let’s create an ocean of people. Let’s spur a tidal wave of action. Together, we can save the ocean – and change the world. What will you do to help protect our ocean?