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A California Dream: Less Plastic in the Ocean

Dean Bonner, Lori Pottinger August 27, 2019
photo - Carmel Beach, California

Friday is National Beach Day—an easy day to celebrate in California. The Golden State’s love of beaches is legendary, and as it happens it’s a legend backed by data. The latest PPIC environment survey found that three in four Californians (77%) say the condition of the ocean and beaches is very important to the state’s future economy and quality of life.

figure - Life

Californians are very concerned about a number of threats to their marine environment—including sea level rise, overfishing, and plastic pollution. Overwhelming majorities view plastic and marine debris as a big problem (72%) or somewhat of a problem (18%). Across age, education, income, and racial/ethnic groups, solid majorities say this is a big problem.

figure - Most Californians Say Plastic and Marine Debris along the Coast Closest to Them Are a Problem

The debris comes from diffuse sources. The California Coastal Commission reports that 80% of marine debris comes from land-based sources, such as litter that washes from land to the sea. Rain carries plastic litter of all sizes into the ocean through urban creeks and storm drains.

A growing concern is microplastics, debris that is too small to be caught by existing filters at wastewater treatment plants. This debris can come from personal care products rinsed down drains and synthetic fibers from laundered clothing. It can also come from larger pieces of plastic that end up in the ocean and break down. The most notorious example of this is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the eastern part of which is between California and Hawaii.

The problem is particularly acute in California. The San Francisco Estuary Institute reports that San Francisco Bay appears to have more microplastic pollution than other major water bodies in the US. A study by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute found that Monterey Bay also has high concentrations of microplastics. And scientists are now reporting that microplastics have been detected in Lake Tahoe for the first time, demonstrating the reach of the problem. Plastic is a problem across California’s waters.

Legislators are taking notice, with several bills currently aimed at tackling this issue. The goals are ambitious—for example, Senator Ben Allen and Assemblywomen Lorena Gonzales, both representing coastal areas of the state, have proposed bills that would slash single-use plastic waste in California by 75% by 2030.

While the outcome of such efforts remain to be seen, Californians’ concern about this problem—and their love of the ocean—is sure to drive momentum in the search for solutions.

 

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