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Pollution Prevention for Marine Debris to Protect Coastal Economy

Ocean litter is 60-80% plastics and more than 80% of the ocean debris is from land-based sources. Here are proposed solutions.

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EDITOR's NOTE: The following excerpts and references to the California OPC Strategic Plan are taken from the proposed plan ... you can download the final report from the OPC's website, noted at the end of the article.

The state’s California Ocean Protection Council (OPC) released its comprehensive action plan to reduce marine debris and protect the $46 billion annual coastal economy.

Plastic debris injures and kills fish, seabirds and marine mammals. Ocean litter is known to have affected at least 267 species worldwide, including 86% of all sea turtle species, 44% of all seabird species and 43% of all marine mammal species. The impacts include fatalities as a result of ingestion, starvation, suffocation, infection, drowning, and entanglement.

Because persistent organic pollutants in the marine environment attach to plastic debris, plastic pellets and fragments have been found to be a transport mechanism for toxic substances in the marine environment. Floating and migrating plastic debris has also been found to transport invasive marine species.

Ocean litter – also commonly referred to as “marine debris” – is a persistent and growing problem worldwide.

  • The general composition of ocean litter is 60-80% plastics, although it has reached 90-95% in some areas.

  • Plastic debris in an area north of Hawaii known as the Northwest Pacific Gyre has increased 5-fold in the last 10 years.

  • Off Japan’s coast, researchers found that floating particles of plastic debris increased 10-fold in 10 years from the 1970s through 1980s, and then 10-fold again every 2-3 years in the 1990s.

  • In the Southern Ocean, the amount of plastic debris increased 100 times during the early 1990s.

80% of Debris Comes from Land-Based Sources

Despite the MARPOL international treaty prohibition on dumping plastics at sea, debris in the oceans is increasing at an alarming rate. This is due to the fact that 80% of the debris comes from land-based sources, particularly trash and plastic litter in urban runoff, and the generation of trash and waste is increasing.

Four Habitats...Four Kinds of Trash

The Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP) and the Algalita Marine Research Foundation (AMRF) have conducted studies to identify and quantify ocean litter in 4 marine habitats: the beach, the ocean bottom, the ocean water column, and the ocean surface.
  • The ocean bottom is dominated by larger material, such as fishing gear and beverage containers.
  • The water column contains mostly plastic fragments, small enough to be suspended by ocean currents.
  • The ocean surface contains fragments and whole items of floating plastic trash.
  • The beach environment contains a combination of different materials that differ in size and composition according to distance from the water’s edge.

The environmental impacts associated with ocean litter will vary by habitat with aesthetic issues being more important on beaches, and food web concerns being more significant for the small surface material.

The Cost of Debris Removal

  • In the 2005/06 fiscal year Caltrans spent $55 million to remove litter and debris from roadsides and highways, the vast majority of which ultimately drain to the ocean.
  • The County of Los Angeles (L.A.) Department of Public Works and the Flood Control District annually spend $18 million per year on street sweeping, catch basin cleanouts, cleanup programs, and litter prevention and education efforts.
  • Coastal communities spend considerable funds on beach cleaning, and in some areas, cleaning trash out of catch basins and other structures designed to trap trash from storm water. For example, L.A. County collects over 4,000 tons of trash annually on its beaches, and in 1994, L.A. County spent over $4 million to clean 31 miles of beaches.
  • In 2001, the L.A. Regional Water Quality Control Board adopted a trash Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for the Los Angeles River and Ballona Creek that requires municipalities and Caltrans to implement a 10-year plan to reduce the amount of trash discharged to these water-bodies to a level of zero.
  • Caltrans’ projected annual costs for complying with this TMDL for highways is $300 million while the City of L.A. projects that its TMDL compliance costs are $125 million per year.

The Economic Impact to Regional Economies

The National Ocean Economics Program calculated the value of California’s “ocean-dependent economy” at $46 billion. The largest portion of this figure was attributable to recreation. 17 While California has never assessed the loss of tourism dollars associated with littered beaches and coastal areas, we can look across the country for some sense of what the impact might be. A major release of trash from New York landfills to the ocean caused major debris incidents on New Jersey beaches and resulted in an estimated loss of $1 billion, primarily due to decreased coastal visitation in 1987 and 1988.

The Solutions to Ocean Debris

The Implementation Strategy organizes specific actions to reduce ocean litter into the following four objectives:

1. Prevent and control litter and plastic debris (changing individual behavior)

2. Reduce single-use plastic packaging and promote sustainable packaging (changing producer behavior)

3. Cleanup and remove litter (engaging communities)

4. Coordinate efforts with other Jurisdictions in the Pacific region (engaging other regions)

Because the majority of the ocean litter problem (80%) comes from land-based sources, the greatest potential for success in reducing ocean litter involves eliminating the land-based sources. Litter is the primary component of land-based sources of ocean litter and the biggest component of litter is packaging waste.

Packaging Waste

Prevention measures are more likely than past litter cleanup efforts Reducing or preventing packaging waste is a key element in reducing litter since packaging waste is the main component of litter. If we generate less packaging, there is less waste available to become ocean litter.

The Steering Committee has identified three priority methods for reducing packaging waste.

  1. Environmental Producer Responsibility (EPR) for packaging waste – also known as “producer take-back.”
  2. Outright prohibitions of specific types of packaging, such as single-use grocery bags.
  3. Fees on commonly littered items; these fees encourage both manufacturers and consumers to seek out less litterprone product alternatives.

Nurdles Discharge Law: AB 258

In 2007 Governor Schwarzenegger signed AB 258, a bill to stop the discharge of pre-production plastic pellets (known as “nurdles”). AB 258 was introduced as a result of the OPC Resolution, and requires the State Water Board to focus on stopping the discharge of nurdles from those facilities that use them in the production of plastic products. Though small individually (a nurdle is about the size of a grain of rice), collectively they make up 17% of all ocean litter found on our beaches. Removing them from the waste stream will make a significant dent in our overall ocean litter problem.

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for Packaging

EPR for packaging places the responsibility for collection and disposal of packaging waste on producers of packaging and manufacturers of products that use packaging. By placing physical or financial responsibility for collection and disposal of these wastes on the producer, EPR motivates producers to reduce waste since the producer bears the responsibility to pay to manage the waste that it generates.

The first implementer of EPR for packaging was Germany. Using EPR methods, Germany achieved a 14% reduction in packaging waste in the first 4 years of the program. In addition, Germany has achieved a 75% recycling rate for plastics (the rate in the U.S. is 5.5%21).

Packaging Waste is Growing

Garbage generated in the U.S. is increasingly comprised of packaging waste. According to the U.S. EPA, containers and packaging are the largest component of the municipal solid waste stream (80 million tons or 31.7 %).

Producer take-back of packaging has been implemented in 33 countries around the world. While not all of them have reduced the generation of packaging waste below original levels, most have stopped or significantly slowed the increase in packaging waste generation.

Americans, who comprise 5% of world population, generate 50% of the world’s solid waste.

In 1995, Americans consumed 30% of materials produced globally.26 Since the largest percent of our garbage is comprised of food packaging waste, policies aimed at preventing convenience food packaging waste from being created in the first place will not only reduce ocean litter, but will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions, resource depletion and oil dependency.

Product Prohibitions

Plastic Bag Prohibitions

According to the Progressive Bag Alliance, 19 billion plastic grocery bags are distributed in California each year and fewer than 5% are recycled, according to the CIWMB.

In 2007, Governor Schwarzenegger signed AB 2449 (Levine) to increase the recycling of plastic bags.

RECOMMENDATION: California should join the growing list of jurisdictions that have decided to prohibit the sale of single-use plastic bags.

Polystyrene Food Container Prohibition

Foamed plastics are found to be second only to pre-production plastic pellets as the most abundant debris item on Orange County beaches.

RECOMMENDATION: Prohibitions of polystyrene food containers would not reduce all polystyrene debris on California beaches. However, thousands of pounds would be reduced.

Litter prevention funded by a litter fee

Food containers and product wrappers that are widely distributed for “free” often end up in the marine environment. If a litter fee were assessed on fast-food drink cups, consumers would be more aware of the environmental costs associated with that product.

SOURCE: The California Ocean Protection Council’s five-year strategic plan was adopted at the June 8, 2006 public meeting. The final publication is available for download: "A Vision for Our Ocean and Coast"

Status of OPC Strategic Plan Actions as of August 2010 download.

In assessing the OPC’s activities in total, the Council has, to some extent, addressed the majority of action items in the strategic plan. Given the number of action items and extremely broad scope of the plan, this represents a significant accomplishment. Most of the action items identify several specific activities for the OPC, or its partners, to undertake. In most cases, the OPC has taken steps to implement some, but not all, of the activities that fall under that action item. Many of the 74 action items involve a supporting role by the OPC, with the primary action to be taken by another agency. In these cases, the OPC could not necessarily ensure that an action item was accomplished.

The fact that the OPC accomplished many of the strategic plan action items does not necessarily mean that the OPC achieved the objectives in the strategic plan. Because of the nature of this first strategic plan, there is no viable means to assess how well the OPC has done in achieving the 24 objectives within the strategic plan. The strategic plan objectives are generally subjective, and not measurable.

Edited by Carolyn Allen
| marine | pollution prevention | plastic |


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