Can We Keep Plastic Pollution Out of Our Oceans?
On April 16 we celebrate California Oceans Day, an annual event when ocean lovers and leaders from across the state come together to advocate for healthier oceans. This year, we’re focusing on solutions to the growing problem of plastic pollution that litters our beaches, rivers, lakes and oceans.
A Broken System
Today, we produce far more plastic waste than can be recovered or recycled. As a result, plastic now pollutes the farthest reaches of the world’s oceans – from the deep seabed of the Arctic, to once-pristine coasts, to local riverside parks and distant islands. While this is a global problem, we can start with solutions here at home. Consumers can make better choices, but producers of plastics need to make changes too.
AB 521: A Smarter System
That’s the idea behind Assembly Bill 521, introduced by Assembly Member Mark Stone and Senator Ben Hueso. This bill would makes producers of plastic products (particularly single-use packaging) do their fair share to keep plastic out of our oceans, rivers, and lakes. It will encourage industry to make smarter, less polluting products, and it will save taxpayers and local governments money by reducing waste management, litter cleanup and recycling costs.
As I have blogged before, the plastic that pollutes our oceans and waterways has severe impacts on our environment and our economy. From the peer-reviewed scientific literature, we know that seabirds, whales, sea turtles and other marine life are eating marine plastic pollution and dying from choking, intestinal blockage and starvation. Scientists are investigating the long-term impacts of toxic pollutants absorbed, transported, and consumed by fish and other marine life, including the potential effects on human health.
This pollution also causes substantial costs to taxpayers and local governments that must clean this trash off of beaches and streets to protect public health, prevent flooding from trash-blocked storm drains, and avoid lost tourism revenue from filthy beaches. A 2012 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that California’s coastal cities and counties spend about $420 million each year to combat litter and curtail marine debris.
AB 521 would require California to adopt a statewide goal of reducing marine plastic pollution by 75% by 2020 and by 95% by 2025. The bill would direct CalRecycle, in coordination with the California Ocean Protection Council and the State Water Board, to establish a program that would require producers of plastic pollution to meet these targets within established timeframes. Agencies offer guidance on what activities -- such as improved product design and support for increased recycling -- can be included in the plans. But rather than establishing a new layer of bureaucracy, producers have flexibility to determine the methods that work best for them to achieve the established targets.
Just as producers should do their fair share to stop plastic pollution, individuals must also do their part by choosing reusable rather than disposable materials, recycling whenever possible, and never littering. There are some plastic items -- particularly single-use plastic bags and foam takeout containers -- that have been banned by more than 70 cities and counties in California.
Senator Alex Padilla’s SB 405 and Assembly Member Marc Levine’s AB 158 would ban plastic bags around the state. NRDC supports these bills because they deal with a product for which there are readily available alternatives – such as reusable bags and recycled content paper bags – and because the problems caused by plastic bags outweigh their utility. Plastic bags easily blow away into the environment and have serious impacts on marine life: bags are mistaken for jelly fish and easily swallowed by turtles and whales, suffocating or becoming stuck in their stomachs. Plastic bags are difficult to recycle, and they cause major problems for recycling facilities, jamming up the recycling machinery and contaminating bales of otherwise recyclable materials.
While we support the plastic bag controls, we also know that we can’t ban every type of plastic that ends up in the ocean: that’s where AB 521 comes in. AB 521 would enhance, expand, and coordinate existing local and state marine plastic pollution prevention measures and provide urgently needed resources to achieve a comprehensive solution to this problem. We’re excited to share this bill at Oceans Day, and we look forward to great progress under the leadership of legislators such as Assembly Member Stone and Senator Hueso.
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