The Ocean Protection Council (OPC) has proposed a far-reaching strategy for reducing the volume of junk that now flows from the state’s shores and watersheds into the ocean. In a report adopted on November 20, 2008, the OPC makes 16 recommendations aimed at changing how California generates, handles, and disposes of items that frequently become marine debris and damage ocean health.
The Implementation Strategy to Reduce and Prevent Ocean Litter singles out three recommendations for priority action: creating a producer take-back program for convenience food packaging, adopting a ban on polystyrene (Styrofoam) take-out food containers, and imposing fees on single-use plastic and paper grocery bags and on products that are not suitable for take-back or a ban, but are often found in litter.
Take-back programs, also known as extended producer responsibility (EPR), have reduced waste in Europe by motivating manufacturers and distributors to use less packaging and more recyclable materials. Bans on polystyrene take-out containers, already adopted by some California local jurisdictions, including San Francisco, Santa Monica, and Monterey, have been shown to reduce the volume of such waste. In San Francisco, a 2008 litter audit showed a 36 percent drop in polystyrene litter since the containers were banned in 2007. A fee on products, paid by the consumer, is expected to give an incentive to buy less damaging products and provide a source of funding for new anti-litter programs.
If the recommendations are adopted, the OPC strategy would affect all Californians. “We’re going to have to recognize we’re all in this together in terms of protecting our ocean environment,” OPC chair and Secretary for Natural Resources Mike Chrisman said at the November OPC hearing in San Pedro.
Marine debris, or ocean litter, is the assortment of discarded or lost material that accumulates in the ocean. It includes millions of polystyrene cups, cigarette filters, and lost or abandoned fishing lines and nets that do not disintegrate in the ocean but continue to entangle and kill marine life. Research shows that 60 to 80 percent of the debris floating in the open ocean is plastic. Marine debris also transports invasive species and toxic pollutants.
Dumping any plastics into the oceans has been illegal worldwide since 1988 under the international MARPOL Annex V treaty, yet marine debris has steadily increased in volume. During the last decade, a five-fold increase has been observed in the North Pacific Gyre (see Coast & Ocean, Vol. 21, no. 4). According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, some 80 percent of the debris comes from land-based sources, including urban runoff.
Industry groups and companies contend that the fees and bans could send shockwaves through manufacturing and lead to job cuts during the current economic downturn. But cities, eager to keep residents employed, have thrown resources at keeping businesses open. “We really put emphasis on helping Santa Monica businesses,” said Josephine Miller, environmental analyst for the City of Santa Monica. In preparing for a citywide ban on polystyrene and non-recyclable plastic food containers in February 2008, Miller helped educate businesses on acceptable paper products from Depression-era days that many of us have forgotten: cone-shaped paper cups for beverages or paper boats for burritos. Some retailers already have begun to offer new plastic-free products in a similar price range. The discount chain Target, for example, sells packages of 54 compostable drinking cups for $2.24 next to packages of 50 polystyrene drinking cups for $1.99, a price difference of one cent less per compostable cup.