Equilibrium & Sustainability

California adopts first-in-nation microplastics reduction policy


California on Wednesday became the first state to adopt a comprehensive strategy for the reduction of microplastics, part of a broad effort to protect the state’s marine environment.

The Statewide Microplastics Strategy, approved by the California Ocean Protection Council (OPC) on Wednesday afternoon, identifies preventative actions and research priorities that the state can take to help curb microplastics along its coasts, according to the council. The OPC, an advisory body within the California Natural Resources Agency, was established by the California Ocean Protection Act in 2004 to ensure that the state maintains a healthy and resilient ocean environment. 

“Microplastics are poisoning the ocean, both across the planet and off the California coast,” California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot said in a statement. 

About 11 million metric tons of plastic enter the planet’s oceans each year — an amount that is expected to triple by 2040, according to the OPC. Eventually, plastics can break down into tiny pieces dubbed microplastics — those less than 5 millimeters in size — which are easily ingested by marine life and lead to impaired growth and reproductive complications. 

Far from “only a marine pollution problem,” microplastics have also been found in human placenta, stool samples and lung tissue, entering the food web through seafood consumption and exposing humans to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, the state strategy explained.

The strategy provides a multiyear roadmap that incorporates a two-track approach toward managing California’s microplastic pollution. The first of the two tracks contains 22 immediate steps that include both “no regrets” actions and multi-benefit solutions for microplastic reduction and management.

Among these 22 early actions are pollution prevention tools, such as the implementation of a statewide requirement to provide single-use utensils and condiments upon request only. Other such preventative mechanisms include statewide purchasing of reusable food-ware, as well as a prohibition on the sale and distribution of expanded polystyrene food-ware and packaging by 2023.

The early actions also include a ban on the sale and distribution of single-use tobacco products that contribute to plastic pollution, such as cigarette filters and electric cigarettes. 

These multi-benefit solutions also involve a variety of “pathway interventions” aimed at disrupting specific pathways — such as stormwater runoff, wastewater and aerial deposition — that facilitate the movement of microplastics into California’s waters.

Among the interventions are approaches like retrofitting stormwater infrastructure, prioritizing the interception of plastic debris in trash hot spots and conducting enforcement actions to curb the illegal discharge of “pre-production plastic pellets” — the building blocks for most plastics — also known as “nurdles.” 

Also within the first track of the roadmap are a series of outreach and education initiatives aimed at engaging members of the public and industry about microplastic sources.

“Some solutions, like stormwater infiltration projects and better compliance with nurdle discharge prohibitions, can reduce microplastics immediately,” Mark Gold, OPC executive director, said in a statement. “But we can not dramatically reduce microplastic pollution without leadership from the textile industry and tire manufacturers to produce consumer products that don’t add to the growing problem.” 

Among the top source products of microplastics in California are tires, synthetic textiles, cigarette filters and single-use plastic food-ware, according to the OPC.

The second track of the Statewide Microplastics Strategy has a more long-term focus — setting scientific goals to inform state actions in the years to come. This track has 13 parts, which include the standardization of a statewide microplastics monitoring system and improvements to the scientific understanding of impacts to aquatic life and human health.

Also in this track are plans to prioritize future management solutions that incorporate local data, as well as the development of future pollution mitigation mechanisms.

Crowfoot, the Natural Resources secretary, emphasized the urgent need to act on microplastics, by implementing the mechanisms outlined in this strategy.

“By reducing pollution at its source, we safeguard the health of our rivers, wetlands and oceans, and protect all of the people and nature that depends on these waters,” Crowfoot said.

Tags California Microplastics Plastic

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