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Gary E. Frank headshot

The Microplastics Crisis is Getting Worse. Can California’s Plan Move the Needle Forward?

California’s recently announced comprehensive plan to tackle microplastics is a welcome push. But, will it be enough to make a difference?
By Gary E. Frank

Straws turn are among the single-use plastic items that can become microplastics

With more than 11 million metric tons of plastic entering Earth’s oceans every year, an amount experts say could triple by 2040, California’s comprehensive plan to reduce microplastics may very well serve as a welcome push. Will it be enough to make a difference? The scale of the microplastic pollution generated within the world’s fifth-largest economy alone indicates such a strategy certainly could not hurt.

“We must take action, and this strategy shows us how,” said Wade Crowfoot, the state’s secretary of natural resources, in a public statement announcing the plan. “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.”

Research has suggested that the Golden State’s waterways are saturated with microplastics. The effects include “an estimated seven trillion pieces in San Francisco Bay alone, much of which washes in through stormwater drains,” Katherine Gammon of the Guardian reported. On that point, the California Ocean Protection Council (OCP) identified the top sources of microplastics: tires, synthetic fabrics (often from fragments that can be sourced to washing machines and dryers), cigarette filters and single-use plastic food containers.

The Golden State’s two-track plan was announced in late February. The plan’s first track lists 22 immediate, “no regrets” actions to curb plastic pollution at its sources, find ways to reduce and manage microplastic pollution, and educate the public about the problem while offering the best possible solutions. The second track outlines a 13-point comprehensive research strategy to enhance the scientific understanding of the sources of microplastics in California, drive future action through a statewide monitoring plan, boost the knowledge of how these pollutants can affect aquatic life and human health, and then, develop a future management plan for microplastics based on locally available data.

Organizations including the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) have concluded that plastics are the most harmful and persistent fraction of marine litter, accounting for at least 85 percent of the waste that ends up in the globe’s waterways and oceans. Microplastics, which agencies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) identify as plastic particles less than five millimeters in size, are the result of plastics in aquatic environments breaking down into pieces of ever-decreasing size. According to agencies including the IUCN as well as OCP, the potential health effects on marine life include tissue inflammation, impaired growth and development as well as the impaired ability for such species to reproduce.

Preventative measures in California’s plan range from a ban on certain plastic materials, prioritizing the reusability of packaging, limiting single-use plastic, a plan for statewide procurement of reusable food-ware, and stopping the sale and distribution of polystyrene-based food containers and packaging by 2023.

Andrew Gray, a watershed hydrologist at the University of California, Riverside, told Guardian the plan’s emphasis on prevention is critical, as once microplastics are in the environment, removing them is “virtually impossible.” Gray leads a research laboratory at UC-Riverside that contributed some of the science that helped develop California’s microplastics plan.

The global pandemic made plastic pollution worse due to the increased demand for single-use plastics, intensifying pressure on the environment, according to research published by the U.S.-based Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) last fall. More than eight million tons of pandemic-associated plastic waste have been generated globally, and more than 25,000 tons ­– mostly medical waste from hospitals – entered the oceans, concluded PNAS’s researchers.

In addition, legislation aimed at curbing plastic pollution was postponed in California and other U.S. states. This November, California’s voters will vote on a ballot measure that would require all single-use plastic packaging, containers and utensils to be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2030.

California’s plan could provide a roadmap for a global community becoming more aware of the threat posed by plastic waste. Some companies, such as Coca-Cola, have responded to public pressure by announcing plans to increase the amount reusable packaging for its products. In early March, as evidence mounted that more citizens worldwide support some form of a ban on single-use plastics, representatives from 173 countries met at the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya to agree on continuing talks over the next two years for a global treaty that will address plastic pollution.

For many scientists, such a global treaty could not come soon enough.

“The exponential rate at which global industries extract fossil fuels and produce new plastics and associated chemicals outstrips governments’ ability to regulate their safety, manage waste, and mitigate harm to people and the environment,” a team of scientists led by Bethanie Carney Almroth, Melanie Bergmann and Scott Coffin wrote in an op-ed for Environmental Health News. “The total mass of plastics produced exceeds both the overall mass of all land and marine animals and the planetary boundary for these novel substances, moving us out of a safe operating space for humanity.”

Image credit: FLY:D via Unsplash

Gary E. Frank headshot

Gary E. Frank is a writer with more than 30 years of experience encompassing journalism, marketing, media relations, speech writing, university communications and corporate communications. 

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