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Recycling won’t save us. Let’s phase out the scourge of plastic pollution.

Researchers remove plastic straw from sea turtle’s nose

Texas A&M researchers talk about how they removed a plastic straw from a sea turtle's nose, in order to improve its quality of life.
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Texas A&M researchers talk about how they removed a plastic straw from a sea turtle's nose, in order to improve its quality of life.

As Californians honor Earth Day 2019, the state’s beaches, waterways and parks remain littered with disturbing amounts of trash, especially plastic pollution. And the problem promises to get worse, despite the fact that California has a recycling goal of 75 percent of our solid waste by 2020.

Why? Over the past couple of years, California has lost major markets for recyclable materials, particularly plastics. In 2017, China established Operation National Sword, which limited recycling imports and banned a number of plastics. In January of this year, China expanded its ban to include post-consumer plastics such as shampoo and soda bottles.

India, which had become one of the top importers of U.S. plastics, followed China. Last month, the nation announced that it will also ban scrap plastic imports.

As a result, the U.S. recycling rate for plastics is expected to plummet from 9.1 percent in 2015 to as low as 2.9 percent this year.

In turn, more plastics will clog our landfills and spoil our shorelines. Already, plastics are estimated to comprise up to 80 percent of all marine debris and 90 percent of all floating debris. According to the Coastal Commission, the primary source of plastic marine debris is litter that flows into storm drains and waterways.

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Plastics are a scourge, inflicting untold harm on marine life. When plastics break down in nature, they turn into small particles that are ingested by birds and marine animals that confuse the tiny pieces with small fish, plankton or krill. According to a Greenpeace report, up to 9 out of 10 seabirds, one in three sea turtles, and more than half of whale and dolphin species have ingested plastic.

Without action, the mass of plastics in the world’s oceans is also expected to exceed the mass of fish by 2050.

Scott Wiener - crop
Scott Wiener Credit: Lorie Leilani Shelley

Petroleum-based plastics also pose substantial threats to human health when they fragment into smaller particles and contaminate our food and drinking water. Exposure to plastics and associated toxins has been linked to cancers, birth defects and other serious health problems.

In short, California needs to dramatically reduce its dependence on plastics, especially single-use products. That’s why we’re proud to co-author Senate Bill 54, the California Circular Economy and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act, with state Senators Ben Allen and Henry Stern.

Under SB 54, state agencies would be required to adopt regulations to source reduce and recycle 75 percent of single-use packaging and products sold or distributed in California by 2030. The legislation would also mandate that all single-use packaging and products distributed or sold in the state be recyclable or compostable by 2030.

Some naysayers contend that reducing single-use plastics will harm California retailers, grocers and restaurants. But SB 54, coupled with China and India’s recycling bans, actually provides California with economic opportunities: Namely, to build infrastructure for the manufacture of more recyclable materials and to create domestic markets for our own recyclables.

Plastic pollution costs California plenty. Local governments statewide spend over $420 million annually on attempts to prevent plastics and other litter from entering our rivers and streams and polluting our beaches and oceans.

From a climate change perspective, we simply can’t afford to wait to reduce our reliance on fossil fuel-based plastics. By 2050, plastic production is expected to account for 17 percent of global fossil-fuel consumption, according to a report released last week in Nature Climate Change.

Climate scientists agree that we have about 12 years to change our way of life to prevent catastrophic climate change. SB 54 is pivotal to achieving that goal.

California has a long history of global leadership on environmental issues. SB 54 will help us continue that proud tradition.

State Senators Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, and Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, are co-authors of SB 54.

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