California targets microplastics that pollute the oceans


California is aiming to severely limit the spiraling scourge of microplastics in the ocean while pushing for further study of this threat to fish, marine mammals and possibly humans, under a plan approved by a state panel on Wednesday.

The Ocean Protection Council has voted to make California the first state to enact a comprehensive pollution control plan, recommending everything from banning plastic-laden cigarette filters and Styrofoam drinking cups to building more green zones around plastic to filter rainwater before it is spilled into the sea.

The proposals in the report are advisory only, as many reforms require the approval of other authorities and the legislature to be implemented. But the signal of determination from council members — including Controller Betty Yee and the heads of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Agency — puts California at the forefront of a global push on the matter.

“What this action says is that we must address a global environmental disaster immediately,” said Mark Gold, executive director of the Ocean Protection Council. “We’re making progress as we continue to learn more about the science.”

California Secretary of Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot added, “By reducing pollution at source, we protect the health of our rivers, wetlands and oceans and protect all people and nature that depend on those waters.”

Industry opposition has helped squash laws that would require single-use packaging to be recyclable or compostable. But voters have an opportunity in November to enforce those requirements with the California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction Voter Act. The voting measure would force single-use plastics to be reusable, recyclable or compostable, with a goal of reducing plastic waste by a quarter by 2030. The measure would charge up to one cent per item to incentivize waste reduction and provide funding for recycling and sanitation efforts.

Scientists have estimated that 11 million tons of plastic enter the ocean every year, an amount that could triple by 2040 without a course correction, the state’s report said.

Microplastics are broadly defined as particles less than 5 millimeters (about 3/16 inch) in diameter. Some come from the decomposition of plastic bags, bottles and packaging, others from clothing fibers, fishing gear and containers.

A 2019 study of the San Francisco Bay area surprised some scientists when it concluded that the smallest single source of microplastics was the tiny particles of vehicle tires washed into the bay from the streets.

The often-unseen pollution has been found not only in the most remote oceans, but also in seemingly pristine mountain streams, on farmlands worldwide, and “in human placentas, stool samples and lung tissue,” the state report said.

A variety of chemicals in microplastics have been shown to harm fish and other marine life — inflaming tissues, stunting growth and impairing reproduction.

The state’s plan outlined 22 measures to curb the problem, some aimed at eliminating plastic waste at source, others at cutting waste before it becomes airborne, storm drains and sewers, and still others aimed at educating the public about the problem enlighten.

Some of the proposals attack highly visible segments of the waste stream.

For years, environmental groups have routinely identified cigarette butts laden with microplastics as the most common form of litter from beach cleanups. The Marine Conservation Agency proposed that this year California ban the sale and distribution of cigarette filters, electronic cigarettes, plastic cigar holders and non-recyclable tobacco product packaging.

Similarly, the group recommended a ban on food and packaging made from polystyrene, which includes Styrofoam. The target date for this restriction is 2023.

Officials also recommended that state agencies use their own purchasing power to purchase reusable food where possible and reduce reliance on single-use items.

Other changes already passed need to be implemented, like a 2021 law requiring restaurants to only provide disposable utensils and condiments if customers ask for them.

The state also wants manufacturers to produce washing machines that filter out microfibers before they end up in drains. They want vehicle tire manufacturers to find alternatives that put less micro-waste on the road. It is unclear whether these changes will be mandated or just encouraged.

For plastics that are not reduced at source, the Ocean Group recommended a number of measures to limit the flow of microplastics into storm drains, rivers and the ocean. These solutions sometimes fall under the heading of “low-impact development” and include the creation of ditches, greenways, and “rain gardens” that filter and retain waste before it flows into the sea.

It also recommended putting more bins on beaches and other “hot spots” where plastics can easily enter waterways.

While research on microplastic pollution has increased, there has been no systematic approach or agreement on which pollutants should be measured. The ocean agency’s plan outlines scientific shortcomings that need to be addressed so that pollution measures can be standardized and safety thresholds established.

Microplastic pollution has attracted international attention. The United Nations is trying to work out a treaty to curb the pollutants, while the European Union is formulating its own policy.

The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine reported last year that by 2016 America produced more plastic pollution than any other country, more than all countries in the European Union combined.

The California Oceania Authority’s action this week emerged from a 2018 law authored by Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Canada Flintridge) calling for government action.

State Water Resources Control Board officials are working on a separate policy to measure and set safety guidelines for the levels of microplastics allowed in drinking water.

The San Francisco Bay Pollution Study, co-authored by the San Francisco Estuary Institute, found that more than 7 trillion pieces of plastic are washed into the bay each year.

Warner Chabot, executive director of the institute, commended world leaders for approving the microplastics plan.

“To solve the problem, we need to stop or greatly reduce microplastics at the source,” Chabot said. “There is no quick fix and there are a number of options for a solution.” California targets microplastics that pollute the oceans

Tom Vazquez

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