Plastic debris has become as ubiquitous to U.S. beaches as sand, surf, and shells. Every year, cleanup crews through the country collect millions of pounds of plastic trash from beaches and coastal waterways, with the most coming from California’s 1,100-mile coastline. While as much as 1.6 billion pounds of plastic end up in our oceans every year, plastic does not biodegrade, and decomposes extremely slowly, posing a dangerous threat to marine life.
Creatures like seabirds, marine mammals, and fish mistake colorful or shiny plastic items for prey, particularly plastic bags, which look like jellyfish to hungry sea turtles. Animals that ingest plastics often die from damage to their digestive system, or by starving to death, feeling full from a stomach full of man-made objects that do not digest and have no nutritional value. Animals also become entangled in plastic debris, injuring or even drowning them.
Plastics are particularly insidious because they pose threats even in pieces nearly invisible to the human eye. Much of the plastic in the ocean is in the form of “microdebris” or “microplastic,” which is created when larger pieces of plastic are broken apart by sunlight and wave action to tiny pieces 5 millimeters or less in size. This microplastic outnumbers zooplankton in some parts of the world by as much as 6 to 1. Microplastic, ingested by animals feeding on plankton, becomes a part of the oceanic food chain, consumed not only by the animals that mistake it for plankton, but also by the animals that then eat those animals. In this way, microplastic can even make it onto our plates.
Recent research also suggests that some microbes may digest plastics. At this point, it is unclear whether these microbes are actually biodegrading the plastic – breaking it down to simple molecules like carbon dioxide and water – or just releasing the chemicals that make up plastic. Many plastics contain hormone-like chemicals like Bisphenol A and phthalates, making the second possibility a particularly disturbing one. To make matters worse, plastic tends to absorb dangerous toxic chemicals like PCBs and DDT, endocrine disruptors, and even fire retardants. These chemicals bioaccumulate, or build up, in larger marine animals, and can end up in the seafood that we eat.
Plastics pose some very real and very dangerous risks, yet legislation intended to fight ocean plastic continues to be trashed. Two California legislators, Assemblymembers Ben Hueso and Mark Stone, introduced an “extended producer responsibility” bill requiring manufacturers to determine how to keep the most common plastic waste out of state waterways. The bill, Assembly Bill 521, aimed to reduce plastic pollution along the coastline of California by 95 percent by 2024. Unfortunately for our oceans, however, the State Assembly’s Appropriations Committee held the bill without a vote, effectively killing the legislation for the season.
The bill would have mandated that a plastic manufacturer not complying with plastic reduction targets could be fined up to $1,000 per day of violation, and up to $10,000 per violation per day for “intentional, knowing or negligent” violations.
University of California, Los Angeles Institute of the Environment and Sustainability Associate Director Mark Gold told the Associated Press that although the legislation wouldn’t have solved the plastic pollution problem, it could have had a wide-ranging effect. He also noted that it would have been the first significant proposal to attempt to reduce the amount of plastic debris in the ocean that makes up trash formations like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is estimated to be roughly the size of Texas and is known as the world’s largest landfill.
California’s size and influence could have made this bill a particularly influential one for the rest of the country. “With nearly 40 million people in the state, what happens here matters whether it is cap-and-trade and renewable energy portfolio standards, solid waste reduction, [or] water conservation,” Gold explains. “What happens in California matters both nationally and globally.”
We’re disappointed and frustrated to hear that AB 521 was trashed. Our oceans need our help now, both through state- and nation-wide policies, and the individual practices of people throughout the country. California may not have taken a stand for our oceans this time around, but you still can — Please sign our Plastics Pledge, and take the pledge not to trash the oceans.