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Ocean Currents

Tackling Plastic Pollution in California

Four new bills in the Golden State will help protect our ocean

Pacific Ocean Coast, California
© Alexey Komarov

This blog was updated on October 7, 2021 to reflect the passage of all four bills.

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. Four bills were recently passed and signed into law by Governor Newsom that will reduce waste and reform recycling. This represents a big win for our ocean and the incredible natural wonders in the Golden 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.

The legislation signed into law this week on recycling exports ensures 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 will 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 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 law focused on recycling labeling prohibits the use of the word “recyclable”, the use of the “chasing arrows” symbol or any other suggestion that a material is recyclable on unrecyclable products made or sold in California. In most California municipalities, this will reduce contamination in the recycling system, lower costs for local governments and taxpayers and empower consumers to make informed purchasing choices based on actual product recyclability. This will encourage producers to make sustainable packaging choices and support companies looking for a steady supply of materials 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 plastic utensils, straws and other food ware items. Unfortunately, food ware makes up 60% of the most commonly found items on beaches and waterways around the world at Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanup (ICC). Much of it isn’t recyclable: Our latest ICC report found that 69% of the most commonly collected items over the last 35 years of the ICC are effectively unrecyclable, and of these, nearly half are food and beverage related items.

This new legislation on single-use food ware will significantly reduce the amount of food service waste in California. It requires 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. New legislation addressing disposable wipes will ensure these wipes are labeled 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. With the passage of these bills in California, we get one step closer to a truly circular economy that eliminates plastic waste.

More work remains, of course, and we look forward to working with our allies in the state to reduce new, single-use plastic production, hold producers responsible for the disposal costs associated with their products and packaging and ensure waste is properly disposed of or recycled. Luckily, we have incredible advocates like you who will help us each step of the way to create a healthier future for our ocean.

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