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State gets tough on plastics

The Ocean Protection Council recommends banning certain cups and bags to reduce plastic marine debris.

July 26, 2008|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

California's leaders should ban smoking on beaches, forbid fast-food joints from distributing polystyrene cups and containers and require markets to recycle plastic bags or ban them outright as part of an aggressive campaign to reduce plastic marine debris.

These and dozens of other recommendations are included in a report to be released next week by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Ocean Protection Council, a policy body designed to coordinate the patchwork of local efforts to protect California's waters and beaches.

Some of the recommendations would compel the state to catch up with coastal cities that are outlawing single-use plastic containers and plastic supermarket bags.

"We need to charge forward and have an overarching policy that is no less vigorous than these cities'," said Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, who was instrumental in ordering the report when he was a member of the council.

Some recommendations in the 23-page report could push California to the forefront of the anti-plastic litter campaign, by regulating toxic chemicals used in plastics and going after litterbugs more aggressively.

Besides the traditional public education campaigns, the report recommends attaching redemption fees or punitive charges to items that commonly wind up in coastal waters and on beaches.

Notably, the report says, bottles with monetary redemptions are rarely found amid the debris.

"The debris that is found on our beaches has no value," the report said. "There are costs associated with cleaning up litter, and there is no financial incentive to the individual who caused it to do otherwise."

Meanwhile, plastic bags, which are often free and can't be redeemed, make up 25% of the tonnage of debris scooped each year from storm drains in Los Angeles.

The council's report suggests toughening enforcement of anti-litter laws and increasing fines to $2,000 for a first violation and $5,000 for subsequent infractions.

It recommends supporting a statewide ban of smoking on beaches, as a way to reduce or eliminate cigarette butts left behind.

The long-awaited study was designed to marshal support for pending legislation which, among other things, would prohibit supermarkets from providing plastic carryout bags unless stores charge a small fee and encourage customers to return the bags for recycling.

An estimated 19 billion plastic bags are distributed in California each year. Fewer than 5% are recycled.

China, Australia, South Africa and other countries have decided to ban the bags. "California should join the growing list of jurisdictions that have decided to prohibit the sale of single-use plastic bags," the report said.

Tim Shestek, director of state affairs for American Chemistry Council, said the plastics industry has many programs to encourage the collection and recycling of discarded plastics, but he believes bans are ill-advised.

"We do oppose these knee-jerk reactions that say, 'Let's ban plastic grocery bags,' " Shestek said. "If we do, then what? Paper is heavier and has a cost associated with it. It takes seven trucks to deliver the same number of paper bags that takes one truck with plastic bags, so you have more CO2 emissions."

Any discussion, he said, should weigh all the trade-offs.

The light-weight and durable nature of plastics has made them a focus of marine debris campaigns. It takes hundreds of years for plastic to break down in the ocean.

Globally, 80% of plastic marine debris comes from land, either blown by the wind or washed off city streets into streams and rivers that empty into the ocean. The rest, mostly fishing gear, is jettisoned by ships.

Plastic debris kills an estimated 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals and turtles each year.

Vikki Spruill, president of the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy, commended Schwarzenegger and Garamendi "for their determined efforts to combat ocean trash so that our planet's life support system is healthier and more resilient."


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