By: REYNA IWAMOTO / MANAGING EDITOR
On April 5-6, members of the U.S. Senate and French Parliament, business leaders, lawyers, researchers, professors, and representatives from various organizations gathered at LIU for the International Summit on Plastic Pollution.
The summit brought together more than 25 leaders and scholars to discuss data, research, actionable policies, and future projects with the objective of reducing the global plastic pollution problem.
Plastic pollution has been accumulating at an alarming rate and if action is not taken to reduce these emissions, plastic waste in aquatic ecosystems is on track to nearly triple by 2040.
In coordination with the Global Council for Science and Environment (GCSE) and the Office for Science and Technology of the Embassy of France in the United States, LIU hosted this summit in-person in the Library Learning Center and online via Zoom and Youtube.
LIU Senior Vice President Randy Burd opened the conference on Tuesday morning, acknowledging the significance of this collaboration between the U.S. and France, along with the recently announced designation of LIU as a Dassault Systèmes Education Center of Excellence in Life Sciences and Research.
“Our hope is that the summit results in continued collaboration between the U.S. and France and to ideally involve additional countries to pursue action at [a higher] level,” Burd said.
The summit began with keynote speaker Jesse Ausubel, chairman of the Richard Lounsbery Foundation Outpacing Plastic Pollution Through Science and Innovation.
Ausubel, who served as the lead author for the Manifesto of the Clean Ocean International Expert Group of the UN Decade for Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, spoke about the goals that are mentioned in the manifesto.
The manifesto, created with the goal of clean oceans by 2030, includes “clean ocean objectives” for 2025 and 2030, detailing potential pathways for a “profitable blue economy and a clean ocean.”
Following his presentation, it was noted by a member of the conference that he sounded “very hopeful” with the policies in the manifesto, to which he replied with a quote from a 19th century rabbi: “The loudest sound in the world is a habit breaking.”
“We have to come to be so accustomed to certain ways of life, but if you look at younger people and words coming from across society from business leaders, students, or politicians — we seem to be undergoing a change in mentality,” Ausubel said. “There can be great changes in behaviors, so yes, I am hopeful.”
Other presenters included Dr. John Weinstein, a professor from the Department of Biology at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, who shared data from recent research into how the pandemic has affected the issue of global plastic pollution.
While the data he collected on the U.S. Southeast Atlantic and the French Atlantic coasts did not exhibit that Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) items, such as masks, were significant beach litter yet, in his presentation, Weinstein referenced a study that made significant predictions. The study anticipates that by the end of the century, it is predicted that almost all PPE plastics associated with the pandemic would “land on beaches (70.5%)” or end up on the “seabed floor (28.8%).”
Aside from presentations of research, the summit also included table and armchair discussions led by LIU’s Director of the Honors College and Associate Professor Dr. Alexander More, discussing future scientific opportunities for working with France and other partners.
In attendance at the summit were also members of the U.S. and French government, including Monica Medina, Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs of the United States.
Joining the summit via zoom, Medina emphasized that now is “the moment for ambitious global actions and especially in the ocean, when we know that plastic pollution can get to anywhere if it’s emitted.”
“The impact [of plastic pollution] is truly transnational and global, and only global solutions will work to solve this problem,” Medina said. “And I think the good news is that countries now recognize this, they know that we have to work together in order to stand this tide of plastic pollution to get ourselves on the right side of this plastic pollution problem.”
Medina then explained that in early February, during the United Nations Environment Assembly, France issued a joint statement with the U.S. recognizing the importance of curbing plastic pollution at its source.
This statement supports launching negotiations for a global agreement that would call on countries to develop national action plans to combat plastic pollution.
“175 nations adopted it and the agreement is just at the beginning — we are now starting the actual negotiations… we have a long way to go, but I am really optimistic that we will be able to get our arms around this terrible problem,” Medina said. “Our EPA colleagues already have a recycling plan and are working on a plastic pollution plan that will hopefully shine light on good ways to deal with this.”
Medina also emphasized that governments alone cannot be the solution to the growing issue of plastic pollution, encouraging the involvement of a multitude of stakeholders, including non-governmental organizations, members of civil society, academics, students, sub-national governments, and those in the private sector.
On the second day of the summit, Ana Agostinho, the managing director of the Mirpuri Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Portugal, presented on one of the group’s recent projects, “The Good Bottle.”
In trying to develop a replacement for the plastic water bottle, the Mirpuri team created “The Good Bottle,” a product composed of a compostable polymeric base in a domestic environment.
“The Good Bottle shows a 74% biodegradability rate after 45 days,” Agostinho said. “Its composition is algae, so as it breaks down, it serves as food for marine species.”
The bottle, presented in the form of a mineral water bottle, was first showcased and used on board by the Mirpuri Racing Team in the 2021 Ocean Race Europe.
While the bottle is currently in an industrial phase, Agostinho and her team hope to have it competing with major brands in the future.
“It was a concept that became reality and it supports the idea that it is possible to create alternatives to plastic… ones that are not only good for your health but also good for marine ecosystems,” Agostinho said.
As the summit wrapped up, the final speaker, Jean-Philippe Laguerre, joined the conference via Zoom.
Laguerre serves as the Director for Education in North America with Dassault Systèmes, a French software company that develops software for 3D experience products, content, and services that are designed to support companies’ innovation processes.
Dassault Systèmes assists companies by providing an environment that allows “engineers and companies to take into account the [environmental] regulations they have to comply with.” Whether it is packaging or streamlining the manufacturing process, Laguerre said the company’s goal is “to help customers make better choices.”
“We serve 12 different industries and all these industries have a need for sustainability, looking for better solutions and products,” Laguerre said.
While this summit was a gathering of professionals committed to the fight against plastic pollution, LIU President Dr. Kimberly Cline also highlighted the hope that events like this creates for the future.
In her brief appearance on the final day of the summit, Cline said that LIU is “pleased to have the opportunity to collaborate with other universities and organizations to support long-term research initiatives and actionable policy proposals.”
“We have the right people who really care and with that, we can really make a difference,” Cline said.