Conservation & Science

We’re educating California leaders about ocean plastic pollution

Plastic is one of the most common materials in our daily lives. We drink from plastic cups, wear clothing made of plastic fibers and buy products sealed in plastic packaging. We’re surrounded by these petrochemical-based polymers, but we don’t yet fully understand them. Especially when it comes to questions about how plastic trash affects the ocean environment — and our own health.

In January, Monterey Bay Aquarium and the California Latino Legislative Caucus hosted a Capitol briefing on the impacts of plastic pollution on the state’s ocean and waterways. Addressing an audience of legislative staff, state officials and conservationists, the expert panel presented eye-opening facts about the science and policy behind the problem.

Bottle in water_FlickrCC_Kate Ter Haar
Pollution” by Kate Ter Haar is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Dr. Roland Geyer, associate professor of industrial ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has investigated just how much plastic is flowing to the sea, and where it’s coming from.

Using solid waste data from 2010, he calculated that 192 coastal countries produced 275 million metric tons of plastic waste that year. Of that amount, he estimates 8 million metric tons entered the ocean — enough to cover an area 34 times the size of Manhattan ankle-deep in plastic marine debris. And that input rate is likely increasing each year.

What can we do about it? Roland sees two big opportunities for change in California: Reducing litter, and producing less plastic waste in the first place.

The vials show the volume of plastic microbeads in each cosmetic product. Photo courtesy 5 Gyres.

Dr. Rebecca Sutton, senior scientist for the San Francisco Estuary Institute, then spoke about plastic pollution in San Francisco Bay. Her focus is on microplastics — pieces smaller than 5 millimeters across (the width of a pencil eraser).

All plastic litter eventually becomes microplastic as sunlight, wind and waves break it down. But some plastics are already microscopic when they enter the ocean. These include microbeads — tiny plastic balls used as exfoliants in facial scrubs and toothpastes — and plastic fibers that break loose from synthetic clothing in the laundry.

“I’m thinking about my daughter’s fleece pajamas,” Rebecca said.

A recent study counted up to 2 million pieces of microplastic per square kilometer in the Bay — higher than in comparable urban waterways including the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay.

The good news: We’ll soon see a big reduction of plastic microbeads in the United States. President Barack Obama recently signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, banning the use of microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics nationwide, following enactment of similar bans in California and other states.

A recent study found human-made debris in 60 percent of all Pacific sanddabs sampled.

Dr. Eunha Hoh, associate professor of public health at San Diego State University, then talked about how microplastic moves through the food web, with potential impacts on human health.

Most plastic is made with toxic chemicals — additives like bisphenol-A, fire retardants, phthalates and styrenes. But when it’s floating in the ocean, plastic absorbs additional pollutants like lead and PCBs. Plastic particles in the ocean can concentrate toxins at levels thousands to millions of times higher than in the surrounding water.

When marine animals like seals, seabirds, turtles and fish ingest plastic litter, they also ingest these chemical cocktails. One study found human-made debris, including microplastic and fibers, in more than one-quarter of fish sampled from markets in Indonesia and the United States.

Fishers in Madagascar_FlickrCC_Rod Waddington
Small Fish, Madagascar” by Rob Waddington is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Anna-Marie Cook, marine debris program coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 9, echoed this point: Plastic litter introduces toxins into the food web, making plastic pollution a health concern.

In light of these findings, EPA is conducting studies in the Hawaiian Islands to determine whether plastic pollution is contributing to high contaminant levels in the bodies of marine mammals, including Hawaiian monk seals.

“In places where subsistence fishing is a key part of the culture and lifestyle,” she asked, “are humans exposed to increasing levels of chemical contaminants through the fish they catch and eat?”

Dealing with plastic pollution is expensive. A 2012 EPA study found 90 West Coast cities collectively spend about $500 million on trash management each year. Most of that cost, Anne-Marie said, is related to debris from single-use plastic packaging.

But the tide is turning. Conservation nonprofits such as Rethink Disposable and Save Our Shores are working to reduce the use of disposable plasticware in restaurants, hotels and schools throughout California.

Park on the U.S.-Mexico Boder. Photo by Todd Stands.

Dr. Serge Dedina, executive director of WILDCOAST, concluded the presentation by discussing the impacts of plastic pollution on the Southern California town of Imperial Beach, where he is mayor. He described wetlands filled with discarded vehicle tires and polystyrene trash along the Tijuana River, and presented plastic pollution as an issue of environmental justice. WILDCOAST’s approach engages local communities on the front lines of habitat restoration.

Monterey Bay Aquarium is working with more than 20 leading aquariums nationwide to reduce the sources of plastic pollution. In California, we’re urging voters to uphold the state’s plastic bag ban on the November ballot by saying “yes” to a plastic-free ocean.

Learn more about the Aquarium’s work to protect ocean health.

Featured photo: New Deal, a landscape painting by artist Marti Cormand in Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Ocean Travelers Plastics Gallery.

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