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Ocean Currents

Tackling Plastic Pollution in California

Four new bills in the Golden State promise to help protect our ocean

Pacific Ocean Coast, California
© Alexey Komarov

It’s not hard to fall in love with the ocean in California. You can drive for 600+ miles with endless ocean vistas on the Pacific Coast Highway or wake up early in the morning to explore tidepools teaming with life. You can see elephant seals and sea otters enjoying the same coastal habitats you return to again and again. It’s not surprising that most Californians are concerned about plastics polluting the beaches and ocean they love.

Luckily, the state is making big strides this year to tackle plastic pollution in our ocean. We have been excitedly tracking four bills in the Golden State that will reduce waste and reform recycling. Passage of each bill would represent a big win for our ocean and the incredible natural wonders within the state.

Curbing Recycling Exports

Plastic waste generated in the U.S., particularly California, frequently gets shipped overseas for disposal. While this waste often is intended to be recycled, too often it is landfilled, incinerated or sometimes simply (and illegally) dumped. Yet, here in California and throughout the U.S., exported plastic waste is frequently categorized as having been recycled. This practice leads to a lot of mismanaged plastic waste ending up in our ocean, yet it gets counted as if it was recycled.

Last year Ocean Conservancy released a study that showed how much the U.S. is outsourcing our massive “plastic footprint” to developing countries.

A new bill in California on recycling exports (AB 881) would ensure that only plastics that can actually be recycled by the importing country would constitute “recycling” and count towards California’s waste diversion goals. All other exported plastic wastes would be considered “disposal.”

Ensuring Truth in Recycling

Figuring out what should end up in trash cans and what should end up in recycling bins is no easy task. Many of us rely on the “chasing arrows” label on our packaging to help us make those decisions. However, many of the products that feature this symbol aren’t recyclable in our local communities. That can lead to a lot of waste ending up in our recycling bins that can confuse and contaminate our recycling systems, which ultimately makes recycling more expensive and less efficient. This also makes it harder for items that are readily recyclable to get a new life as another product.

A new bill focused on recycling labeling (SB 343) prohibits the use of the word “recyclable” on unrecyclable products and the use of the “chasing arrows” symbol or any other suggestion that a material is recyclable. In most California municipalities, this bill will reduce contamination in the recycling system, lower costs for local governments and ratepayers and empower consumers to make informed purchasing choices based on product recyclability. This will encourage producers to make sustainable packaging choices and support companies looking for a steady supply of material to invest in recycling and reprocessing facilities in California.

Reducing Food Ware Waste

If you’re like me, you ordered a lot more takeout this past year. Along with the delicious food delivered to our homes often comes unwanted utensils, straws and condiment packages that end up in the trash. Plastic utensils, straws and takeout containers are often seen littering our beaches and neighborhoods and are among the most common items collected at Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup™ each year. It’s a growing issue that is impacting our ocean.

In California, a bill on single-use food ware(AB 1276) will significantly reduce the amount of food service waste in the state. It will require single-use food ware like cutlery and straws to be available only by request at restaurants or on delivery apps. That will ensure that you are getting only the food ware you need and reduces plastic waste generated from takeout. It also might eliminate the need for that extra drawer in your kitchen that’s filled with sauce packets and plastic knives you know you’ll never use but simply cannot toss into the waste bin.

Do Not Flush

Disposable wipes are not flushable. Instead, when flushed, these wipes shed countless numbers of microfibers that pollute our waterways and ocean while simultaneously wreaking havoc on our sewer systems. This results in a gross phenomenon known as “fatbergs.” These balls of grease and wipes can block sewer pipes  and result in sewage overflows that pollute waterways and our ocean. A new bill addressing disposable wipes (AB 818) would label these wipes with “do not flush” and ensure that there is no advertising on the package that promotes disposing them in the toilet. This will help educate consumers and alleviate serious problems that can arise when these wipes end up in our sewage system.

We’re excited about California’s continued commitment to reduce plastic pollution and protect our ocean, and we appreciate this commitment. We’ll be tracking these bills and voicing our support to push them over the finish line. If you live in California, you can help by encouraging your representatives to vote “yes” on this very promising legislation. With each bill that passes in California and beyond, we get one step closer to a truly circular economy that eliminates the concept of plastic waste.

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