Plastic pollution is a persistent and growing problem worldwide that significantly impacts the health of our oceans and beaches. Roughly 8 million metric tons of plastics are estimated to enter the ocean each year, and the United States is one of the top 20 contributors to plastic pollution. Plastic has been found in a wide range of marine environments including the seafloor, surface water, the water column, and on beaches and shorelines. California communities are estimated to spend more than $428 million annually to clean up and control plastic pollution. Plastic never truly degrades into its chemical components; instead it physically breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. Plastics under 5 millimeters in size are called microplastics, and are found worldwide, even in places considered pristine. Plastics have been found in the digestive tracts of marine organisms ranging from zooplankton to whales, and microplastics have been found in drinking water and food, including shellfish, salt, beer, and honey.
The State of California has become a leader in preventing ocean litter by passing a ban on single-use plastic bags, and by banning microplastics in wash-off products, like face scrubs and toothpaste. The OPC’s marine pollution program works to address ocean litter by coordinating among the wide range of state agencies and nongovermental organizations that work on plastic pollution, and by supporting needed research to help the state better respond to microplastic pollution.
How do we work on Plastic Pollution?
Click on each strategy below to learn more
- SOUND POLICY GUIDANCE OPC is developing guidance and strategies to inform policy responses to plastic pollution. OPC is also adopting resolutions on timely plastic pollution policy options.
OPC partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to develop and implement the California Ocean Litter Prevention Strategy (Strategy), which describes actions that OPC and California stakeholders will pursue to address plastic pollution through 2024. The Strategy is an update and expansion of an earlier document that laid out actions that state agencies could take to address ocean litter.
• California Ocean Litter Prevention Strategy: Addressing Marine Debris from Source to Sea, updated and adopted in 2018
• An Implementation Strategy for the California Ocean Protection Council Resolution to Reduce and Prevent Ocean Litter, completed in 2008
California Microplastics Strategy
State Senate Bill 1263 requires OPC to develop a comprehensive prioritized research plan to better understand the impacts of microplastics on California’s marine environment, and identify policy options to prevent and reduce microplastic pollution. OPC is required to submit the microplastics strategy to the legislature by the end of 2021 and is required to provide a progress report on implementation of the microplastics strategy by the end of 2025.
In early 2020, OPC partnered with Ocean Science Trust to convene an interdisciplinary working group of the Ocean Protection Council Science Advisory Team. The working group is made up of scientific experts who have been charged with developing a risk assessment framework for microplastic pollution in California, identifying information gaps that hinder risk assessment, and providing guidance on future research to fill those information gaps. More information on the working group, including working group members, is available on the Ocean Science Trust website.
OPC adopts resolutions on relevant and timely policy options to prevent plastic pollution. OPC’s work on plastic pollution began with the Council’s adoption of a resolution to reduce and prevent marine debris in 2007, and additional resolutions on policy options to address plastic pollution have been passed since then.
• Resolution of the California Ocean Protection Council Regarding Plastic Bags, adopted in 2016
• Resolution of the Ocean Protection Council on Support for Extended Producer Responsibility Programs, adopted in 2009
• Resolution of the California Ocean Protection Council on Reducing and Preventing Marine Debris, adopted in 2007
- ADVANCING SCIENCE OPC works to secure and leverage funding for scientific research to better understand plastic pollution, its impacts, and inform which policies will effectively prevent plastic pollution.
Scientific Trash Monitoring
Plastic pollution data has been collected through beach cleanups since the late 1980s, but scientific assessments of plastic pollution sources, pathways, and endpoints in the environment is an emerging field. OPC is funding a series of projects to support the standardization and validation of trash monitoring methods in California. These methods will assist in determining the effectiveness of policy, particularly the Trash Amendments.
- DEVELOPING SOLUTIONS OPC is working to develop and advance innovative strategies to reduce and prevent plastic pollution including pilot projects and policy effectiveness research. See the featured initiatives and projects section below for details.
Featured Initiatives and Projects
Developing Scientific Trash Monitoring
Starting in 2017, OPC developed a series of projects with the State Water Resources Control Board to develop, validate, and standardize trash monitoring methodologies. These projects also worked to educate interested organizations about scientific trash monitoring methodologies.
In 2016, OPC funded a pilot project to “unpackage” Alameda. Through this project, Clean Water Fund worked with 80 to 100 businesses in Alameda to reduce their reliance on single-use disposable food packaging. This project piloted changes in institutional purchasing to reduce the prevalence of single-use foodware that typically becomes plastic pollution. Overall the 80 businesses that participated are estimated to eliminate over 6 million pieces of single-use foodware annually, preventing over 64 thousand pounds of waste each year. Collectively these businesses are estimated to save over $139,000 annually.
Newport Bay Water Wheel
In 2018, OPC approved a $1.68 million Proposition 1 grant to the City of Newport Beach for planning and construction of the Newport Bay Water Wheel Project. This project is modeled closely on the design of the successful Baltimore Trash Wheel project. The Newport Bay Water Wheel could immediately reduce trash load reductions of 50%-80% once installed.
Interactions between microplastics and pathogen pollutants
In 2018, OPC approved a grant to UC Davis for research to investigate microplastics as a potential vector for terrestrial pathogens in the marine environment. This project will investigate the interaction between microplastics and land-based protozoan parasites such as Cryptosporidium, Giardia, and Toxoplasma, and whether these parasites can ‘hitchike’ on microplastics to infect commercial shellfish species.