George Leonard and Chelsea Rochman / The San Francisco Chronicle – 2017-06-28 14:39:35
California Models How to Clean Up,
Reduce, Recycle Plastic Waste
George Leonard and Chelsea Rochman / The San Francisco Chronicle
(June 7, 2017) — As the first-ever United Nations Ocean Conference is in full swing in New York, California’s leadership and action on ocean issues can inspire the world.
Our brand has long been tied to the sun, sand and surf. We like to take care of what we love, which is why one day last September nearly 59,000 of us headed to the beach to pick up trash. Together, we removed 700,000 pounds of trash in a single day.
As part of the global International Coastal Cleanup, our partner, the California Coastal Commission, rallied volunteers across the state for California Coastal Cleanup Day. They logged their finds — 18,879 straws, 13,361 plastic grocery bags and 188,003 cigarette butts — into the world’s largest citizen science database on marine debris, giving us a snapshot of the most persistent forms of trash found along California beaches and waterways.
It was a huge and successful effort. But sadly, cleanups are not nearly enough to tackle the crisis of plastic trash in our ocean. Every year, 8 million metric tons of plastic waste leaks into the ocean — the equivalent of one garbage truck dumping a full load of plastic into the ocean every minute.
Today, garbage patches of plastic waste ranging from packaging and bottles to preproduction plastic pellets are found in all five of the world’s oceanic gyres, or circular ocean currents. Plastic trash has turned up in the Arctic and floating near the equator. It bobs on the surface of the ocean, drifts in the water column and contaminates sediments at the very bottom of the sea.
Plastic is now embedded in the aquatic food chain. It has been found in more than 800 (and counting) species of marine life, from the smallest plants to the largest whales.
Notably, plastic has been found in the stomachs of 49 species of commercial fish, many of which are being dished up right now — tuna and salmon as well as mussels, clams, scallops, oysters, shrimp and lobster.
Microplastics have been found even in sea salt. What this means for food safety is unclear but it is rapidly becoming an important and active area of research.
We’re all part of the problem. The developing world is consuming greater amounts of packaged goods without investing in modern waste management infrastructure. Most of the plastic waste in the ocean originates from five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, where waste generation has outstripped waste collection and management.
Meanwhile, in most other countries, the use of single-use plastics continues to increase. Each of us in North America uses an astounding 220 pounds of this lightweight material per year. In most cases the availability of single-use plastics is not being met with a parallel growth in recycling or more sustainable products.
As the problem of ocean plastic has grown, California has taken action. Voters upheld the first statewide ban on single-use plastic bags (Prop. 67) and the Legislature passed a bill that incentivizes crab fishers to recover lost fishing gear (SB1287).
In addition, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation to ban plastic microbeads from personal care products in California (AB888). This bill is credited with catalyzing a similar federal law that passed with overwhelming bipartisan support just months later.
California is working hard to get the right solutions. We have grassroots engagement to get out and clean up our beaches, coasts and waterways. We have businesses and industries ready to embrace new innovations that will help reduce, reuse and recycle plastics. We have a government that is committed to stemming the tide of plastic trash. There is always more to do but we have a good head start.
That’s a model worth exporting to the rest of the world. After all, the ocean is not just a brand identifier for sunny California. It is what sustains all life and defines the very essence of our beautiful blue planet.
George Leonard is the chief scientist of the Ocean Conservancy. Chelsea Rochman is an assistant professor specializing in ecotoxicology at the University of Toronto.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.