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Leila Monroe’s Blog

Can We Keep Plastic Pollution Out of Our Oceans?

Leila Monroe

Posted April 15, 2013 in Curbing Pollution, Living Sustainably, Reviving the World's Oceans

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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.

Marine plastic broken system.JPG

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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Comments

Jeanene T.Apr 16 2013 02:08 PM

Well said! Thank you for the informative post on important legislature!

Bec HubbardApr 17 2013 07:44 PM

Great to see that people are looking to address the cause of the problem - too much plastic going into the system! Can you provide us with a copy of the draft legislation and any other useful initiatives you have in this space? we are looking at similar approaches on the other side of the planet in Tasmania, Australia.

Rob TossbergApr 18 2013 11:46 AM

I've been helping companies green their printing needs since 2002. It's becoming increasingly difficult to find green alternatives to plastic - namely, in my opinion, compostable stocks for labels/stickers. The quantity that must be ordered has increased to proportions which make it difficult to buy and use within a reasonable amount of time. Frankly, very few companies are seeking to switch from plastic to the compostable and this makes it less promising for the manufacturer of the compostable stock. Furthermore, there has been little progress with the adhesives, which are typically acrylic emulsion (again, my opinion) and used by 95% of the label manufacturers.
Incredibly frustrating and depressing to me.

Rob TossbergApr 18 2013 11:57 AM

I've been helping companies green their printing needs since 2002. It's becoming increasingly difficult to find green alternatives to plastic - namely, in my opinion, compostable stocks for labels/stickers. The minimums that must be ordered has increased to insane proportions which make it incredibly difficult to buy and use within a reasonable amount of time. Frankly, very few companies are seeking to switch from plastic to the compostable and this makes it less promising financially for the manufacturer of the compostable stock. Furthermore, there has been little progress with the adhesives, which are typically acrylic emulsion used by (again, my opinion) 95% of the label manufacturers.
All this is Incredibly frustrating and depressing to me, since a large part of my business is based on the compostable stock - check out our blog, you can see we print for a lot of great non-profits and companies.
Either more companies must be forced by law to 'do the right thing' or there needs to be more pressure by customers demanding companies improve their 'green' printing practices. And, as far as the compostable labels go, price is no longer a reason for not using it since it's the same cost to print as a semi-gloss paper label.
Hurrah for your post, Leila!

Leila MonroeApr 18 2013 12:30 PM

Bec: thanks so much for your interest in what we're doing! You can find our bill language here as it moves throughout the legislative process, http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/bilinfo.html
And here is the specific text currently in print:
http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/13-14/bill/asm/ab_0501-0550/ab_521_bill_20130410_amended_asm_v98.html

Rob: thank you so much for your perspective. You really described the problem well.

To both of you, we have a website where groups like yours can sign on to join a consensus of business, government and organizations working to stop plastic pollution before it reaches the ocean: www.stopplasticpollution.org

Thanks again!

Leila

Global OceanApr 22 2013 08:23 AM

A great post on a highly topical issue! Global Ocean is a UK-based marine conservation charity, working to become the voice of plastic pollution in the UK through the use of educational materials and sessions, media (social media and video) and merchandise. We hope to engage the public, the media and the government in order to spread the message about the damage that plastic pollution is doing to our oceans, marine life and even to our own health.

We would love to hear more about the work you're doing - could you drop us an email to info@globalocean.org.uk so we can hopefully discuss these issues further?

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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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