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Karen Garrison’s Blog

Put plastic in its place

Karen Garrison

Posted August 29, 2013 in Curbing Pollution, Living Sustainably, Reviving the World's Oceans

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We discard way more plastic than we recycle or reuse (see my OpEd in the Los Angeles Times, today: “To heal the Earth, put plastics in its place”).  Much of it ends up in rivers and lakes, on the beach or in the ocean, where it poses a hazard for turtles, dolphins and sea birds that mistake the bright floating objects for food. 

Beach cleanups make a difference, but they can’t stem the tide of plastic pollution. We need to address the problem at its source. Once it has become waste, local governments (read, you and me) pay millions of dollars to deal with it.

Brach Trash by Michael Dorausch Planetc1.jpgIn fact, a new Natural Resources Defense Council study of 95 California cities found that regardless of their distance from the ocean, communities are spending big sums — a total of nearly $500 million annually — to clean up litter and prevent trash from collecting in  waterways. Topping the list are Los Angeles ($36.3 million), San Diego ($14 million), Long Beach ($13 million), San Jose ($8.8 million), Oakland ($8.3 million) and Sacramento ($2.6 million).  That's money that could otherwise pay for schools, firefighting, police departments or improving public parks.

This year, Los Angeles City Council earned praise when it approved a plan to phase out single-use plastic bags, joining more than 70 California communities in a growing movement to curtail the use of plastic bags in markets and big box stores.  The durability of plastic makes it highly useful for long-term applications, but completely unsuited for a product that’s used once, then thrown “away.”

Restricting plastic bags is a critical step, but any beachgoer knows bags are far from the only trash you'll find at the shore. Polystyrene food packaging, containers and plastic bottles also mar our beaches.  The state agency CalRecycle estimates that, in addition to litter, Californians dump 3.8 million tons of plastic into state landfills every year — waste that could be recycled or avoided altogether. 

The good news is that ocean and waste management groups in California are crafting legislation to address the proliferation of plastic waste.  The idea is to hold producers of plastic packaging more accountable for this pollution. The proposal would create incentives for industry to use less plastic packaging for their products, make them recyclable and ensure that recycling actually happens. It would encourage innovation.  And it would allocate to producers a fair share of the costs of cleaning up streets and beaches so citizens and local governments don’t have to carry the burden alone. 

We all have a stake in keeping our communities, rivers, beaches, and oceans clean—for sea creatures that depend on healthy ecosystems, and for our own quality of life. 

For more information, see Waste in our Water: The Annual Cost to California Communities of Reducing Litter that Pollutes our Waterways.

Photo credit: Brach Trash by Michael Dorausch Planet.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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