The numbers are breathtaking: Half of the plastic that has ever existed was made in the last 13 years. We produce more than 330 tons of plastic annually, but our recycling efforts are pathetic. More than 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into our oceans every year.
It’s time that California stopped using the Pacific Ocean as a garbage dump and started taking a leadership role in phasing out the use of plastic products that aren’t recyclable.
A package of bills before the Legislature would represent a major step in that direction. Senate Bill 54 and it’s companion legislation, Assembly Bill 1080, would cut packaging and plastic waste by 75% by 2030. A third bill, AB 792, would require that beverage containers contain no less than 75% recycled plastic content by 2035.
The need is acute.
California’s ban of single-use plastic bags helped reduce the amount of plastic found along its 840-mile coastline. But pollution from plastics remains one of the greatest threats to ocean health. Plastic takes more than 400 years to degrade, and scientists are predicting that unless significant action is taken, by 2050 the oceans will contain more plastic waste than fish.
Plastic breaks down into tiny pieces that can absorb contaminants such as pesticides. Fish often mistake small pieces of plastic for food, harming the fish and other members of the food chain that feed on them. All told, an estimated 5 trillion pieces of microplastics pollute our oceans, threatening the health of fish, whales, seabirds and countless marine species.
Closer to home, the Bay Area News Group’s Paul Rogers reported on a 2015 study that showed the San Francisco Bay is contaminated with billions of tiny pieces of plastic in greater concentrations than found in the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay.
Researchers, he reported, dragged tight-meshed nets along the surface of the water in nine areas of the bay, from Oakland and Treasure Island to locations near San Jose. In the South Bay they found on average 1 million pieces of tiny plastic per square kilometer — an area of about 250 acres — at the water’s surface or a few inches below it, a concentration nine times higher than levels of similar plastics found in Lake Erie.
In order for the legislation to succeed, the state has work to do to fix its collapsing recycling market. Some compromises on the timeline of the legislation may be necessary. But the status quo is unacceptable. California should become a model state for phasing out the use of plastic products that aren’t recyclable.
Editorial: California should phase out use of plastics that aren’t recyclable